Welcome to my new series of articles “Moral Manias” where I will be discussing how moral manias of the past reflect our present cultural battle with delusionary reactionaries.
DISCLAIMER: There will be discussion of false allegations of child s*xual abuse throughout this article and subsequent moral mania articles. While I absolutely believe that more children than we know about suffer at the hands of monsters–even organized monsters a la the thankfully dead Jeffrey Epstein–I do not believe that it is for Satanic purposes; rather it’s unfortunately just because some people are disgusting.
And with that we proceed.
On December 4, 2016, twenty-eight year old Edgar Maddison Welch entered Washington, D.C. pizzeria Comet Ping Pong armed with an assault rifle and a conspiracy theory. A Satanic cabal lead by former Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton was operating a child sex ring out the (non-existent) basement of the pizza parlor. These fictional children were supposedly used for the purpose of Satanic ritual abuse led by Clinton, her aides Abedin and Podesta, and famous performance and spatial artist Marina Abramovic.
Luckily, Welch only shot the lock off of a freezer door in the dogged pursuit of his truth. As he was led away, despondent, we as a culture had to wonder: how could this happen?
Simply enough: It’s happened before.
Little did we know then how fully it would happen again. But I digress on that point for now.
To truly understand the origins of the North American “Satanic Panic” that swept the United States and (to a lesser degree) Canada, during the 1980s and early 1990s, we must start with a concept and a book.
The concept? Recovered memory therapy. The book? Michelle Remembers.
But what is recovered memory therapy?
“Recovered Memory Therapy is a loosely defined cluster of clinical methodologies where a therapist would help adult survivors recall repressed, traumatic memories of childhood abuse, allowing a path to personality reintegration….its historical notoriety renders it today broadly considered both unscrupulous and unprofessional by the mainstream medical profession (Heller-Nicholas, 2015).”
Published in 1980, Michelle Remembers is considered the origin of the Satanic Panic and the moral crackdowns on supposed cases of Satanic ritual abuse. It’s also considered one of the most influential media hoaxes of the 20th century. Written by Dr. Lawrence Panzer and his eventual wife Michelle Smith, Michelle Remembers chronicles the supposed Satanic ritual abuse of Michelle as a young child in 1950s Victoria, Canada.
In 1976, Smith came to Dr. Pazder to undergo treatment for depression after a miscarriage. After describing feelings of lost time, Pazder insisted Smith undergo hypnosis. While a more responsible therapist likely would have concluded C-PTSD or postpartum depression from the findings, Pazder…wasn’t responsible. Michelle Remembers is based upon the 600 hours of recorded sessions that Smith underwent with Pazder.
Smith’s parents’ marriage was a toxic one, filled with alcoholism and violence. According to the book, during one of her father’s many absences, Michelle’s mother became involved with a mysterious man named Malachi and his other Satanic associates. Smith’s mother allegedly gave her daughter over to the Satanic cult, only for young Michelle to witness murder, cannibalism, and other dark acts. She is abused throughout the book in a multitude of ways.
Apparently, at one point, she has a tail and two horns surgically attached to her body, stretching the already thin credulity to the breaking point.
Michelle warned of the advent of a new Holocaust to come in 1982, in which Satan would once again be summoned to Earth to enact horror upon horror on the population. This comparison is especially awful, given that Michelle Remembers is so obviously a hoax.
Despite being so fantastic as to beggar belief, the book became a phenomenal success, making its authors celebrities. Smith and Pazder became enamored both with success and each other, leaving their respective partners at the time to wed one another. They toured the country together, making ridiculous amounts of money, and even appeared on Oprah, where the famous host unquestioningly took them at their word. Pazder and Smith always pointed back at the recorded tapes as proof of authenticity, despite the capabilities of technology even then to manipulate audio or just have acted their way through the hypnosis process.
As the story of Michelle Remembers continued, it nearly made it to theaters as a feature film. The Pazders were civilly sued by Anton LeVey, the Church of Satan, and Michelle’s father to prevent this from happening. LeVey and the church, for all their abuses under the notorious LeVey, were horrified by the accusations of the books, proclaiming they would have nothing to do with such crimes against humanity. This beggars the question: if the book heralded such horrific damage in the cultural landscape as it did, how much worse would the film have wrought?
It can be theorized that both the Satanic Panic and the recent resurgence of it come from an inherent hatred of women and queer people of all genders. While men are certainly involved in the stories of ritual abuse, both in Michelle Remembers, the Comet Ping Pong case, and others that would follow, women and queer people are primarily to blame. Michelle’s mother hands her over to the cult. Hillary Clinton supposedly leads the cabal, with Abramovic and Abedin at her right hand, an army of LGBTQ+ supporters following their whims. While men insistently give validation to these stories based on their pre-supposed authority as men, it is the image of women and the queer community who continually suffer over it.
In the book, the cause of Michelle’s suffering isn’t blamed upon the male priest Malachi, but rather her mother and the cloaked priestesses that surround her. By their rejection of the traditional feminine–eschewing motherhood for monstrosity–they place the idea of the monstrous feminine at the forefront of Satanic Panic discourse. Blaming the betrayals of her mother and mother figures in her life, Smith-Pazder repudiates the idea of female liberation and replaces it with the conservative ideal-hood of women–women as subservient, loving mothers. This is hammered home by her claim that Jesus Christ himself sent a vision of the Holy Mother to guide Michelle away from the horrors of Satanic ritual abuse. Much like the figure of Christ Himself, Pazder is put forward at the end as Savior, father, and husband figure in the end Smith-Pazder’s narrative.
It would also be remiss to avoid discussing the inherent racism and anti-Semitism of Michelle Remembers. Villainous Satanic priests are often described having either Semitic or West African features or ancestry, and many symbols from both ethnic groups are littered throughout the text in scenes of graphic, sensationalized abuse. Pazder relied heavily on independent research into West African religious cultures to emphasize the “cult-like nature of the people.” Good in the book is described as “blonde, blue-eyed, and tan” giving Jesus more of a Malibu Ken appearance than that of the Aramaic speaking figure of Biblical times. While this is already unfortunate enough in outdated fiction like the works of Lovecraft, Michelle Remembers was billed as true and became a cornerstone for the Satanic Panic movement.
Soon enough, the Pazders’ claims began to unravel. Two sisters, not mentioned in the book at all–in fact, whose existences were repudiated by the book–came forward to deny the salacious claims made towards their mother. Starting the 1990–the same year as the infamous McMartin Preschool Trial–the claims began to come undone in earnest. Not one corroborator to Michelle’s story was able to be found. But it was Pazder’s own words that became their undoing.
“It is a real experience. If you talk to Michelle today, she will say ‘That’s what I remember.” We still leave the question open. For her, it was very real. Every case I hear I have skepticism. You have to complete a long course of therapy before you can come to conclusions. We are eager to prove or disprove what happened, but in the end it doesn’t matter.”
Despite his loose relationship with fact and fiction, one cannot help that the distinction mattered a great deal to those whose lives were ruined by the results of the Satanic Panic. The Pazders’ involvement didn’t just kick off a cultural phenomenon: it would result in loss of jobs and families, as well as end in the most dramatic, expensive trial in United States history.
As we continue on, we’ll go to the past, zoom back to the present, and theorize on the future.
Feel free to comment and share, but just know that I AM moderating comments!
CITATION: “REMEMBERING MICHELLE REMEMBERS By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas” Janisse, Kier-La, and Paul Corupe, eds. Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s. FAB Press, 2016.
There’s been no better source for unique horror films than the gemstone mines of horror novels and novellas. From Dracula and Frankenstein to the litany of Stephen King adaptations (with his son Joe Hill already making ground in similar productivity and quality), horror literature has crafted some of the most startling and haunting source material for films. Tropes of the genre were born in the literary works of authors like Shelley, King, McDowell, and more, and the collective of incredible horror authors that continue to produce terrifying works of fiction only grows as the popularity of reading and book collecting also rises!
Indie horror and the concept of “elevated” horror is also having somewhat of a zeitgeist cultural moment, which gives excellent opportunities for literary adaptations of horror novels to succeed. Considering the chart topping successes of some of these novels, I’m almost 100% sure that we’ll see at least a few hit the big screens in coming years!
DISCLAIMER: I am only including books I have read in full for this list. There are plenty of other awesome horror books out there that might make great adaptations, even ones I have read that didn’t make my thirteen cut-off. Please include any additional adaptations you’d like to see by leaving a comment!
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno Garcia
The book follows Noemi Taboada as she journeys to a remote hacienda owned by her cousin’s new husband. The strange behavior of her cousin’s in-laws, coupled with the isolated and unfamiliar atmosphere already sets Noemi on edge; but as she experiences horrific, all-to-real dreams and uncovers the hacienda’s bloody history, she must find a way to flee the terrible fate met by all too many who’ve walked its halls.
By far one of the most popular horror books of this list, don’t let that mainstream success fool you. Trending doesn’t equal bland in the case of this stunning gothic horror story set in 1950s Mexico. While it is currently in development as a Hulu limited series, I could also see this book being successfully adapted for a theatrical release, particularly for a director with an eye for gothic sensibilities a la del Toro.
The Grip of It by Jac Jemc
When the house makes an unearthly yowl during the walk-through, the realtor brushes it off as settling noises, and the desperate couple are all too willing to believe it. Julie and James soon try to fit themselves into the flow of small town living, determined to put the past they are fleeing behind them. However, as they try to adjust to how stifling this new life can be, the couple soon realizes that the walls closing in on them aren’t the suburban lifestyle; there is something horrifically wrong with their new home.
This book is what I have occasionally called (in a sense of love and respect to be clear) a “more accessible House of Leaves’ Navidson Record portion.” This wouldn’t be an adaptation for fans of gore or jumpscares–rather this is a horror built on atmosphere, suspense, and ambivalent unease. I feel this would be a return to the haunted house genre as seen in Robert Wise’s Haunting (which was itself based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson), departing from the modern sensibilities brought to the genre by major directors like James Wan.
The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher
Neil Gaiman’s Coraline meets the cosmic horror sensibilities of H.P. Lovecraft in T. Kingfisher’s genuinely scary, funny, and above all delightfully weird novel. Kara, nicknamed Carrot, returns to her old home with her Uncle Earl, following a divorce. This works out well for Earl, who can finally take time off from his job for knee surgery and the subsequent rehab. His job? Owner and curator of The Museum of Wonders, a quaint oddities museum that Carrot loves with her whole heart. Shortly after she makes friends with a local barista that results in him offering to help her fix a hole in the wall at the museum, however, Carrot discovers her beloved childhood paradise hides portals to strange and horrifying other worlds, filled with cosmic terrors she never could have imagined. The pair of friends must escape these hollow places without capturing the attention of the monsters within but….
These monsters can hear thoughts, and they feed on fear.
This book expertly balances effortless charm and humor with mindbogglingly creative terror and monstrosity. More than one reviewer on Goodreads categorized this book’s core concept as Narnia from Hell; in the right hands, this could make an incredible film or limited series. With as beloved as the book and author are, there would be a built in audience, sure to only grow as word spread!
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
This novel is made to be filmed–literally! One of the main narrative arcs of the story is key to the presence of a film crew. When 14 year old Marjorie begins experiencing symptoms of treatment-resistant schizophrenia at age 14, her vulnerable parents are preyed upon by an exorcist priest who wants to make a name for himself. He calls in the documentary crew to film the poor girl’s suffering for reality television, the desperate parents agreeing only to pay the avalanche of medical debt. Interspersed with the reality show narrative is a flash forward to a follow up show fifteen years after the finale, examining the controversial case through the eyes of Marjorie’s traumatized younger sister Merry, casting everything the public was shown into sickening clarity.
See what I mean about literally made to be filmed? Whether as a movie or limited series, this book would not only succeed in this format but absolutely flourish, giving an entry for even more of Paul Tremblay’s popular horror works to be adapted for a larger audience. With a director and editor team that knows the docu-horror style subgenre, this could be one of the most gripping adaptational horrors to go to screen in a long time.
Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
Mermaid horror might not sound like the most terrifying, but this is definitely more H. P. Lovecraft than Hans Christian Anderson. Seanan McGuire, writing as Mira Grant, takes a creature we usually associate with Lisa Frank aesthetics and Howard Ashman songs and dials the gore up to make a truly unique tale of high seas horror.
The tale follows an impressively large ensemble cast on a journey to the area around the Mariana Trench, tracking the possible trail of a long missing scientific documentary crew’s failed expedition. However, they soon discover the horrible truth behind the missing crew of the Atargatis; it’s up to them to fight to survive so that they all can avoid the same fate.
With the ensemble cast and build up, as well as the extra material generated by Grant’s prequel to this novel, a limited series would be an excellent way to adapt this work and possibly open the door for more of the author’s excellent bibliography of work.
Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Another book which utilizes cameras as a story-telling element (and thereby making it somewhat readymade for adaptation), Hex is an eerie tale of a small isolated town living under quarantine due to a generations old curse. The borders of city limits are fenced and guarded and cameras track the every move of the Black Rock Witch who looms over children in the night. When a group of understandably stifled adolescents break free from the town’s wards, they accidentally kickstart far greater consequences than they could have anticipated, casting the town and Hudson River Valley into a medieval darkness.
Translated into 25 languages and a global bestseller in the genre, I wasn’t too shocked to read while researching for this article that a series is currently in development for TV by Gary Dauberman! I’m very excited to see what they come up with, as this novel is highly worthy of the attention and praise. Here’s hoping that they get an excellent practical effects makeup artist to work on the design of the Black Rock Witch–her book description alone gives chills and an iconic makeup look could launch her into the visual horror lexicon forever.
Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones
Hear me out: yes, The Only Good Indians is likely Jones’ most famous horror novel at this time. Yes, My Heart Is a Chainsaw is a glorious love letter to the very genre of horror that would certainly earn itself fans as a movie or limited series. But there’s something so uniquely charming about Jones’ gorey tale of a nomadic family of werewolves that would make an amazing coming of age tale for the young narrator character.
The strength of Mongrels lies less in the horror and more in the rich worldbuilding, lending itself well to a limited series or a dark comedy film adaptation. Shockingly, none of Jones’ work has been optioned for film or series…yet. Mongrels would make an excellent jumping off point for adapting Jones’ significant bibliography of horror books, which nearly rivals Stephen King in numbers.
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
Film or limited event streaming on a platform like HBO Max would be the best bet for adapting the compact intense novel about the monstrosity of the KKK taken to its literal extremes. After secret sorcerer D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation casts a literal spell over the country, white racists fomented by the film transform into literal monsters via body horror sequences that might give either Cronenberg pause. A group of resistance fighters, lead by the fiery Maryse, must fight back and make a stand down in Macon, Georgia, if they and their families are all to survive this endemic which reveals “normal people” as monsters.
Written with a rich alternative history made alive by Clark (who is, in addition to noted novelist, also an academic historian specializing in comparative slavery and emancipation in the Atlantic world), Ring Shout could be the allegorical horror for our troubled times, utterly unafraid to hide anything too far behind the shroud of metaphor. Put an expert production team–such as the one behind the Watchmen limited event series–behind it, and you’re sure to have a recipe for success.
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle
To quote one of my favorite darkly comedic Reddit comments on the notoriously controversial horror author: “everybody gangsta till it’s time to call Lovecraft’s cat’s name.” Howard Phillips Lovecraft was not merely racist by the standards of his time period; he was so racist that even other racists looked at him and said “damn, dude, we don’t do that here.”
However, his influence on horror is undeniable and in the decades since his passing, hundreds of authors–many being people of color–have tackled themes of his work in meaningful ways. Lovecraft Country already made headway in a Lovecraftian literary adaptation focused on Black characters and narrative–it’s time for a direct adaptation of a Lovecraft work by a Black author to be adapted for screen.
The Ballad of Black Tom sees Lavalle take one of Lovecraft’s most horrendously and openly racist stories (The Horror at Red Hook) and recast it in a totally new light in his deft narrative capabilities. Given its slim page count, this book would make an excellent film adaptation, bringing a much needed, more intersectional view of cosmic horror to the masses.
Night Film by Marisha Pessl
Night Film is a giallo thriller movie put to the page, and it’s only a matter of time in my opinion before a smart enough studio negotiates the rights to it. A a clear murder ruled suicide myster? A dogged investigative reporter? A reclusive auteur horror director not seen by the public in decades? Pessl’s book is made for the technicolor brilliance of a late 1970s Argento film–or at least for a director who knows how to properly homage the same aesthetic the novel so clearly strives to emulate.
There are scenes in this book that made me full body cringe and pull my legs up under my chin, and I’m not quite that easy to unsettled–through the medium of writing at least. The mixed media approach of the novel also lends plenty of terrifying visual cues to the would-be production team. While Fincher is too overloaded to bring to this the same sensibilities of Se7en (and he needs to make another season of Mindhunter or I will cry), there are plenty of directors who would jump at the chance for an opportunity to adapt a book like this.
The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig
Another haunted house story? Oh no. No no, not that, that’s for sure. While the premise of “family moves into now-dead abusive patriarch’s old home and bad things begin to happen” certainly sounds like a set-up for a haunted house story this book is so, so much more than that. With a unique cast of characters, Wendig’s dark (and I do mean dark) sci-fi, horror novel takes its readers through twists and turns one never expects. It also gives us a neurodivergent protagonist, always a welcome bit of inclusion in my book.
This book isn’t hopeless, but it is an emotional gut-punch. Given his past two films, I would say an excellent director to helm an adaptation of The Book of Accidents would be the mind behind Hereditary and Midsommar–Ari Aster. No one captures the genuine devastation of trauma in modern horror quite like he has, in my estimation, and I would love (and hate! But also love!) to see an adaptation of this novel in his hands.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix
As someone who cut their teeth on horror comedies as a kid just getting into the genre, I have an intense fondness for the works of Grady Hendrix. Given the massive uptick in 80s fueled nostalgia ( the leader of which right now is Stranger Things), I think the best possible choice of adaptations for one of Hendrix’s many bestselling works is My Best Friend’s Exorcism. Following a pair of besties as they enter the scary world of high school, during the height of the Satanic Panic, Abby notices something is “off” about Gretchen after she tries to contact a boy she met at summer camp. Abby and some other companions soon discover that the only way to save Gretchen is to defeat the power of the devil inside her. Does the group of kids have what it takes?
The vibes of this book are immaculate, blending humor and nostalgic charm with the very real horror of a child in mortal pain and peril. While the children fight back, often with a darkly comedic edge, there’s never any doubt: these are kids in over their head, doing the best they can. Not only would it make an excellent horror comedy adaptation, but also a coming of age film, making horror more accessible to new fans around the world.
Penpal by Dathan Auerbach
Okay so like, I am aware that the phrase “I read this when he first put it on reddit as a creepypasta before he was able to crowdfund enough to self-publish” might not be the most confidence inducing statement to unfamiliar readers, but Dathan Auerbach’s fictionalized epistolary horror tale of his childhood as a stalking victim is one of the hidden gems of self-published horror. It even launched a successful career in mainstream publishing for his acclaimed horror book Bad Man, which is being eyed for adaptation as well.
However, Penpal has something special about it, a rawness that would make it perfect fodder for something particularly dark. I could see it being deftly explored in a similar manner to films like The Poughkeepsie Tapes or Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon–gritty and terrifying for their cinema verite qualities. Even if you just pick up the slim book, you’re sure to feel chills for how all-too-real the story plays out.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Clown in a Cornfield by Adam Cesare The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager A History of Wild Places by Shea Ernshaw The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova The Taker by Alma Katsu Ghost Summer by Tananarive Due Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw
What modern horror tales do you think should be adapted? Do you disagree with any of these choices? Feel free to let me know in the comments!
Since Mary Shelley illuminated the literary world with a spark of life returned to dead flesh, horror and science fiction have been frequent bedfellows. Strange ones, by their nature, but also not–the foundations of science fiction are in horror and rarely fully escape any trace of it. However, there are certain books that have more than just traces–these books have large swathes of horror or are outright equally horror as sci-fi. The scariest books after all are the ones that burrow into the brain and stay there long after reading; what could be scarier than those that base themselves in the semi-known, yet oft mysterious world of the scientific?
While some of these are genre fiction, and others are more literary horror, I have compiled a list of books which fit that bill. They either have multiple scenes that cross into horror throughout, or they share horror as just as much a genre as they do science or speculative fiction!
The Seep by Chana Porter
The Seep is a strange novel, more philosophical and deeply reflective than filled with alien jumpscares or the silent maw of space. It is also very intersectional with the lead being a queer transgender Indigenous woman.
Set in a future where aliens have taken over earth to create a benevolent (if authoritarian) utopia, wives Trina and Deeba live happily until Deeba decides to use alien technology to relive her life and leave Trina behind in the process. Trina is devastated and through the technology begins exploring the nature of both consciousness and the aliens which they have allowed to control their lives. She decides to destroy the symbiotic Seep which controls them, even as it may mean destroying utopia in her grief.
This novel is a terrifying look into the what ifs not only of an alien future, but at how horror can be found in very human emotions: grief, anger, capitulation, obedience. All of these, as well as social issues such as race, class, and gender, are somewhat explored in the short but incredibly poignant and haunting standalone.
The Between by Ryan Leslie
Nerdy Paul and class clown Jay have been friends since childhood, never fully diverging as adults despite their many differences. When Paul discovers a trapdoor has appeared in his backyard, he is cajoled to enter by Jay. Suddenly, the pair find themselves thrust into the horrifying sci-fi world of their favorite dungeon explorer computer game from the early ’80s. Now stuck in the land of The Between game, the pair find themselves facing off not only against the big bad boss NPCs, but also each other and the demons that haunt their old friendship.
While not the best book on this list by far, it’s a very fun and entertaining read, crafted with far more care than the more successful (though gods know why) Ready Player One franchise of nostalgia bait. The Between injects real horror, genuine interpersonal drama, and creative use of tropes in with its manipulation of audience nostalgia. It does it well, even, and I very much recommend it more than RP1 and RP2, especially for those who like more edge to their sci-fi.
The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer
Area X is a beautiful place reclaimed by nature…or something like nature at least. All but the first expedition has died somehow either during their time in the containment area or soon after. The first book follows the twelfth, all-female expedition crew. As both the nature of Area X and of each crew member is revealed to the team, the journey into the unknown unravels and deals devastating consequences, which are addressed in book two. By book three, a final winter expedition makes its way into the now larger Area X, discovering terrifying truths at the heart of the tainted paradise.
In Lovecraft the terror comes from either the deep or the beyond, but VanderMeer masterfully crafted horror into the natural in a way that’s downright cosmic. It’s a shame the two other books won’t be adapted for film the way the first was.
The Collected Cthulhu Mythos by H. P. Lovecraft
Speak of the devil. While Lovecraft didn’t define the sci-fi/horror combination, he used it to create the genre of cosmic horror. While not all of Lovecraft’s stories are interconnected, the many stories of the Mythos are. They tie together Lovecraft’s stories of unfathomable cosmic deities, their demonic children, and their devilish occult followers and the havoc they wreak through indifferent madness or targeted chaos. While Cthulhu is the most famous of the Mythos gods and beings, there are many to torment and haunt the reader. And if those don’t, surely Lovecraft’s dated and horribly uncomfortable racist views will!
Want a long sci-fi series with lots of amazing horror elements and page lengths that make each novel usable as a weapon? Then Corey’s Expanse series is perfectly suited to your needs. There are far too many books in the series to explain everything, but here’s the rundown: when some ice miners from Saturn and a detective hunting for a missing girl run into each other on an abandoned ship hiding a secret, they must find a narrow path to safety by avoiding the eyes of the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations that hold sway over all aspects of life.
While the series certainly is sci-fi to the extreme, the elements and tropes of horror are threaded throughout, particularly with body horror–after all the reactions of a human body exposed to the dangers of space can result in torturous consequences. Beyond this, certain characters have personalities that lend themselves to inducing terror without more than a few words. Highly recommend the series for the characters if nothing else.
We base an awful lot of our existence on certain concepts–scientifically, religiously, philosophically. But what if all of them were wrong? What if they were not only wrong, but purposefully coordinated by outside forces to completely stunt our development?
This is the terrifying premise of the Three Body Problem and its two sequels. This book is hard sci-fi at its finest, incorporating many elements of cosmic terror throughout the books both from the very real Trisolaran species, and the incredible philosophical terror behind the main thesis of the books: what do you do when everything you know is built on orchestrated lies?
The books have some issues regarding sexism. There’s absolutely no way to sugarcoat that, just as there is no way to sugarcoat Lovecraft’s racism. There is one plot point that genuinely made me angry. But I do think these books are great and have a lot of value for fans of these genres who want deep speculation in their sci-fi and horror.
Another sci-fi horror which relies heavily on the speculative and philosophical, Solaris uses exploration of an alien planet to explore the intersections of memory and identity. How much of you is memory? The crew of the ship sent to explore Solaris must begin to wrestle with this question as their memories of days past are resurfacing in literal forms. Does anything sinister lurk behind the planet or its intent?
Adapted for film twice, once well by Steven Soderbergh who was reimagining the Russian masterpiece by Andrei Tarkovsky, the story lends itself to slow burn yet intensely heated drama and interpersonal and internal conflict. This is an alien story, yes, but not the explosive alien of Ridley Scott’s franchise–rather this one gets inside both character and reader in profoundly different ways.
Who Goes There? Or The Thing by John W. Campbell
Originally a short story, The Thing got two film adaptations before the full novel version of the story (called Frozen Hell) was released by the Campbell estate. The novel follows an American crew whose research trip to McMurdo Antarctic Station becomes a shocking, bloodsoaked nightmare when they realize there is a shape-shifting alien hiding in the dog they rescued. As the novel goes on we’re left with questions about autonomy and identity, as well as who we can really trust.
The John Carpenter film is the most well known iteration of the story, which is very valid as it is an utterly incredible classic of both genres it represents. However, it’s very interesting to go back to the original source material to explore parallels and differences from the source material!
This one is less on the list due to its own strength and more its overwhelming influence on the genres. As the most famous and one of the first of alien invasion fiction, the story of an English countryside being overtaken by apocalyptic aliens in giant walking machines had been adapted many times over the more than a century old novel.
The most infamous of this is the highly apocryphal tale of Orson Welles’ radio show hoax wherein allegedly thousands of people were convinced the broadcast was due to a real alien invasion. Little proof supports this as more than a gimmick put forth by Welles after the fact, but the story did scare listeners–just in a typical way for a horror show. It was also adapted into a Tom Cruise vehicle picture which wasn’t terrible, and it inspired thousands of books, films, shows, comics, and games about invasion by aliens.
This epistolary novel told in an almost documentary style is, in my opinion, probably the best example of the writing style ever chosen for use in genre fiction. World War Z uses dry, report-like language, interspersed with gripping personal, interview-like chapters in such an effective way that it literally gave me nightmares, dwelling in my brain long long after I first read it. I normally do not like zombie media in the slightest, yet this is so much more than zombie media; it truly is a commentary on the nature of humanity. When I found out this writer of the most terrifying book I’d ever read was the son of comedy legend Mel Brooks I was both stunned and not: both men deeply understand human nature, they just display it in differing ways.
Carrion Comfort is a hell of a book, but its influence on horror cannot be denied. When Saul Laski, a Jewish prisoner of war in the labor camps, escapes the Nazi monsters holding him captive, he begins a decades long journey towards discovering what sets these global atrocities in motion. He discovers a secret cabal of psionic vampires feeding on the suffering of humanity–the book follows him as he tries to upend the order. While it sounds goofy, it is very much an influential horror book.
Much of The Strain by the phenomenal Guillermo del Toro and Paul Hogan can be traced to Carrion Comfort, as can the concept of fully psionic energy vampires. Since 1989, this book has been terrorizing new readers, giving us all ideas on how the intersections of genre and traditional tropes for storytelling can be stretched.
Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham
The basis for the films The Village of the Damned (1960, 1994, 2022), Midwich Cuckoos takes place in a small town in which everyone passes out one day simultaneously. When they awake, all of the women of child-bearing age are pregnant and notably further along than they should be. After the scandal and accusations die down, it becomes understood that something supernatural has happened; this is reinforced when the children are born…odd. White hair, piercing eyes, and soon enough, psionic powers define the identities of the Midwich Cuckoo children.
You all knew the progenitor of the genre and one of my favorite books of all time wouldn’t be missing from this list! Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley INVENTED the genre of science fiction and so seamlessly blended it with horror that it is inextricably linked to both genres. The language of the book is strong, with quotes that make my skin feel like an electric shock is running through it or like cold water is rushing down my spine.
“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”
― Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
The resonance of this and so many other moments from the creation are something I will expound upon in later articles, but for now, suffice to say my thoughts and feelings on this book and the various adaptations after it are plentiful. It is the mother of the genre, the intersection of two genres, and so many literary trope concepts that it would beggar belief to list them all.
And with that, my dears, we close another article! I hope you’re enjoying these, and that they give you some ideas. What would some of y’all like to see? Comment below with something you’d like for me to write!
I’ve been drawing for a long time. I really feel like I’ve only gotten passable at digital art in the last year.
I did draw fairly well in traditional media–I preferred paper and ink for a long time. Went through pens and markers like crazy! Unfortunately, age changes stuff, and as the hEDS got worse, it hit my hands and arms and shoulders, to where it got too difficult to draw that way. And well starting all over on learning to draw in my late twenties wasn’t easy, I’ll say that!
I still have to use photo references pretty heavily, so if you think you regonize any of the portraits below as a model or celebrity–yeah, you probably do! I use Pixlr, mostly because only had a chromebook for three years, and I got too used to it to use much of anything else. I can’t really use a tablet for the same reasons I can’t use a standard pen and paper anymore, so I just use the trackpad of my laptop.
The below portraits are intended to be original character portraits taken from the narrative story podcast that I have been working on for a little bit. I’ll occasionally talk more about it, but for now, you get portraits and a little blurb. Maybe it’ll intrigue you!
This is a (re)posting of an article I wrote for an entirely different blog, back in 2018. It has been edited for clarity, length, to add images, etc.
The idea for this post came on a whim, as most things do. I was intending to write about trauma, specifically intergenerational trauma and how it affects women. It’s portrayed beautifully and bloodily in Halloween 2018, but it’s something about which only a handful of bloggers have written [at time of writing]. Something about the concept began to frustrate me, however, which I can’t quite put my finger on, and I began to think about trauma as it relates to me personally.
Think of this as a secondary introduction post. Sort of a look into the way my experience as a horror fan is colored, beyond the already very specific lens of other identities. Disability as it relates to existence as a horror fan is…more delicate than people realize.
When I was a child, I was in a low growth percentile. Small, overly fragile, and horrendous internal problems that my poor parents barely knew how to mitigate. As I grew, I had mysterious growing pains, including–it seemed–in my ribs. I developed asthma, and my weight fluctuated violently between being too much to too little. I was too tall for my age, too skinny for my height (or too big for society, depending), and simultaneously too much and not enough of about a dozen different things.
Eventually I stopped growing.
The growing pains didn’t stop.
It wasn’t until college age, that a doctor entered the room with little fanfare and violently dislocated all of the fingers on my right hand without any sort of warning. He told me derisively to stop crying and that I had a rare disease called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. He left the room without telling me what that was. I was left to read Wikipedia with bouts of random panic.
Years later, a much kinder doctor would explain to me all of my symptoms and how they related to a genetic deformity on my collagen markers. You see, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome is a connective tissue disorder, which systematically affects everything in your body with collagen, including your organs. As the years continued, I would have to have surgery to tie my stomach into a knot (my faulty tissue would reverse the surgery a mere three years later), I would be in and out of the ER with dislocated and micro-fractured joints, and my heart would start to rush so much I would pass out cold in the bathroom. There is no cure, there is barely any treatment aside from symptom management, and–despite what some doctors say–it is degenerative in the sense that you only get worse as you age.
As you might imagine, I have a strained relationship with the concept of body horror.
This brings me to David Cronenberg. Cronenberg may not be the progenitor of body horror–that honor would most commonly and likely go to author Franz Kafka–, but he is certainly the director most famous for its portrayal on screen. With films like The Brood, Videodrome, Crimes of Futures Past, and probably most notably, The Fly, it’s no wonder he was given such a venerable title within the horror genre. His films have frightened people for decades, and with good cause.
After all, what is more terrifying than the betrayal of your own body?
I watched the Fly during one of the worst parts of my illness. I recall throwing up at least twice, not out of fear or disgust necessarily, but out of the degenerating path my own body was taking. At the time, my stomach was over-producing so much stomach acid, it was wearing away holes in my esophagus and the lining of my stomach. It was resistant to most medications at the time. I often would compare myself to the Xenomorph Queen in that everytime I would get sick, I’d spit up acid, and I would be throwing up acid at least three times a day. After seeing The Fly, I would say that I was just digesting a bit early and externally.
No one found my gallows humor quite as funny as I did.
I related strongly to the plight of Seth Brundle in the film. Though my body wasn’t changing out of my own jealous hubris, it was changing nonetheless into something I didn’t recognize. That said, I don’t believe Cronenberg necessarily intended for The Fly to be a chronic illness metaphor. A terminal illness metaphor, most definitely; perhaps it was even an unintentional treatise on the horrors and betrayals of aging. However, I doubt it was meant for someone whose illness would keep them alive for an indeterminate amount of time.
Just as Kafka’s metaphor of the cockroach for physical disability could also be read as a metaphor for depression, however, so did my viewing of The Fly. Through no fault of my own had I become freakish and in pain, likely destined to die before reaching a very old age, and having a strong chance of passing the monstrosity I possessed down to any children I may have had had I not learned about my condition’s hereditary nature first.
With that said, my view of body horror is inherently tainted. It’s also, at the same time, painfully intimate. Much like Seth’s transformation into the Brundlefly, talking about it is difficult at the best of times. However, I hope that by writing this post, I have given someone the words to relate to horror in a way they hadn’t realized before.
How many of us of the millennial age set remember spending weeks saving a few dollars in anticipation of the Scholastic Book Fair in order to buy copies of Goosebumps or Fear Street books? Perhaps, if you were lucky (and had the “cool” parents, or just unobservant ones), you could also sneak a copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark in your stack for purchase. For those who didn’t grow up with the admitted economic privilege to do such a thing, staying after school to take out the books from the school library was also a common pastime. There was something so alluring about the pulpy pages filled with scary stories of kids fighting back (and sometimes even losing!) against the forces of darkness.
While many of our generation’s parents were swept up in the terror of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 1990s, many still also had a simultaneous love of horror. Stephen King’s book sales were still chart topping successes, as were many other contemporaneous authors, and horror films were still raking in audiences especially with movies like Scream becoming a cultural phenomenon.
Televangelists and moral crusaders rang their hands about the dive in moral quality due to horror and crime and occult content and imagery being so readily available. Never in history, they cried, had such filth been available so easily to corrupt the children.
It was bullshit, of course. Just like it was bullshit when generations before said the same, and when generations now say the same, and generations to follow will likely do so, well. Now to be clear, I’m not advocating for kids to actively watch content that might be too mature or legitimately traumatizing or desensitizing to them. What I’m stating, clearly, is that violent media has always always been available to be witnessed by the public, often including kids.
No historical horror embodies the spirit of public, mass market demand (including amongst kids) like the Victorian penny dreadful. These oft-serialized pulp stories were as gruesome, if not moreso, than many modern splatterpunk books!
Increased public literacy in 19th century England, especially in urban areas, led to a prominent boom in popular literature for the masses. While this certainly gave us many novels and stories we now know and love (Dickins and Conan Doyle, immediately come to mind), one of the most popular ways to disseminate written entertainment was through broadsides of 8 to 16 pages, sold for a penny.
Crime broadsheets soon became some of the most popular sellers; printers would send paperboys to public executions with illustrated tales regaling readers of the grisly tragedy leading up to the execution. They often ended in a “doggerel verse”, a rough, uneven verse of poetry that warned the reader to not get trapped in the same moral pitfalls of the soon-to-die criminal.
Publishers soon realized there would be money in printing more than just moral warnings. Illustrated and serialized reprints of early Gothic literature such as Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and Lewis’ The Monk soon began making appearances on street corners, and specialty fiction written specifically for the penny dreadful papers soon followed. Crazed cannibal killers like Sweeney Todd, villainous vampires like Sir Francis Varney, antiheroic highwaymen like Dick Turpin, and urban legend cryptids such as Spring Heeled Jack were all born from the pulp paper pages of the penny dreadful.
Plagiarism in the form of parody was also extremely common. Edward Lloyd’s papers were most infamous for this, with his paying authors to essentially reprint the serials with misspelled titles and only the most minor detail changes. Plagiarism was endemic, and after a failed lawsuit brought to the high courts by legitimate publishing house Chapman and Hall, who published Dickens’ works, it seemed there was little impetus to stop publishers from plagiarism as long as they made no claims to being the originators of the intellectual property (omitting the fact that they didn’t own it, was also not required at the time, leaving the impression up to the reader).
There was public outcry from moral crusaders at the time, of course, that the broadsheets were inspiring an increase in youth murder and suicide, as well as other violent incidences. In particular, the case of matricide committed by Robert and Nattie Coombes of their mother Emily captured national attention, ironically landing the young teen criminals as subjects of the crime stories they loved so much.
“We consider that the Legislature should take some steps to put a stop to the inflammable and shocking literature that is sold, which in our opinion leads to many a dreadful crime being carried out….There can’t be any difference of opinion about that,” stated the record from the coroners’ inquest. The new wave of a literate population of youngsters were hungry for more drama than the stiffly written moral tales they were forced to learn from at school, but as per usual, adults of the time didn’t care for this newfound freedom of the youth (particularly youth from the working class). Like films, television, and video games afterward, the scary tales were an easy target for Victorian moralizing and fear of violent crime, which was being whipped up into a frenzy by the news media (sound familiar, anyone?).
There was also fear from the wealthy that the new wave of literacy in the working class “rabble” might take the tales of adventure and ambition as inspiration for revolution against the oppressor class. This fear is always an undercurrent in the wealthy, but particularly as more power for education and social value is put into the hands of the masses. I could get on a soapbox here (and may in future articles), but for now, we’ll continue on.
However, in contrast to most of the wealthy, the fact that nearly one million penny dreadfuls were selling weekly was a powerful financial motivator for publishers to continue printing them. Publisher Edward Lloyd, a huge influencer of popular culture at the time through the stories and news reporting style he encouraged at his papers, flourished in this time (mostly despite his own many personal foibles), and many papers began to publish more serialized fiction to tap into the market. The famous Sherlock Holmes detective stories were born as Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle began selling his tales to The Strand magazine to fund his novel writing and struggling ophthalmology practice. Authors such as Charles Dickens also continued to have mainstream success as a serialized writer, making the argument against accessible popular literature eleven less convincing. As many penny dreadfuls made their way across the pond to be localized as American dime novels, it seemed the phenomenon was nowhere near stopping.
While some magazines tried to tap into the morality market with jingoistic heroes of high ethical standard, most papers continued to publish for the common man’s market demands. Erotically charged versions of the penny dreadful began making headway, with noted Irish author James Joyce getting his start with such fictionalized “true tales”, that became popular in 20th century Americna publications such as Playboy and Hustler. While there were some decrying the corruption of young male readership, most were more horrified by the possibility that young women had access to buy them.
Overall though, like later media, the “concerned public” linked youth violence to the stories, holding regular inquest juries to determine the effect it had on the corruption of moral good and breakdown of social contract. Suicides were also blamed on the stories, instead of on hopeless working conditions or domestic abuse or potential mental illness. A record into one suicide inquest stated: “Deceased committed suicide whilst in an unsound condition of mind, probably produced by reading novelistic literature of a sensational character.” Despite one man convicted of murder explicitly blaming financial abuse as the reason he murdered his employer in a fit of rage, the judicial members still blamed the man’s possession of penny dreadful as the cause of his low moral character.
Even in the case of the poor Coombes family tragedy, it seemed to be far more than the penny dreadfuls which were blamed–one of the boys had symptoms documented that we now could categorize as migraine headaches and ADHD. Both boys had expressed anger and despair at their mother telling them they would have to leave school to support the family through backbreaking work in the shipyards. Neighbors also alleged that their mother berated and beat the boys’ regularly, and that their mostly absent father was no source of joy to the brothers on his scarce visits either. Yet rather than examine any actual social ills and how they might be relevant in the case, the jury placed the blame on the easiest target.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The history of penny dreadful is reflective of the history of popular media, particularly media targeted for the youth market. History is cyclical, and no better example is quintessential to this than the penny dreadful moral panic. As we continue to see mass moral panic in the public, this time over the specter of “critical race theory” and “grooming” in kid’s media (i.e. any book or show that discusses anything other than the cishet white experience, preferably through a Christian lens of ethics), remember the penny dreadful moral panic and the real motivator behind it: controlling the classes of people that those in power felt shouldn’t “be getting ideas.”
I was lucky enough to pick up a copy of Southern Gods a year back at McKay, Nashville’s largest used media store. The cover design was neat, but it was the blurb that caught my eye.
Lovecraft in the style of Southern gothic? I had to give it a shot.
I don’t regret it one bit either. While it’s not Jacobs’ strongest work in my opinion, the atmosphere, character work, and general vibes of the novel are excellent; the tale of a P.I. tracking down a deadly DJ in the Jim Crow-era South is definitely one that I recommend to those looking to expand out further into the mythos.
It got me very curious about the other works of the author, who dabbles both in adult and YA fiction–mostly within the genres of horror, fantasy, and speculative fiction. I personally have no issues with adults who enjoy YA, even ones who are older than me, but as a reader, my preference is for adult fiction. Therefore, I’ll be discussing what I’ve read as far as his works for my age group.
Southern Gods is a great starting point for that. What started as a rough draft for the National Novel Writing Month challenge blossomed into a Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel nominee in 2011. That fact gives me tons of hope for my own writing, but it also just goes to show that sometimes the writing is just the first step–you have to put in the legwork to get edited and published too!
The book follows irascible veteran turned private investigator Bull Ingraham as he’s charged with investigating a strange radio personality whose voice and music seem to induce madness. Ramblin’ John Hastur is rumored to have sold his soul to the devil for such power, but of course, it’s far worse than just that….
Y’all this book was FUN! The vibes switch depending on the POV character with Alice bringing forth Jacobs’ gothic horror sensibilities, while Bull’s POV is all hard-boiled detective fiction. While the inspiration is so clearly paying loving homage and dedication to the Mythos, Jacobs’ is also bringing more of his own unique twist to the Mythos. As a fan of both Lovecraftian god figures, Ramblin’ John feels not just like Hastur but also Nyarlathotep, a choice which I think was excellent for this novel. The ending is a bit too tropey at points, but it’s also not as nihilistic an ending as most Mythos fiction–which I oddly enjoy a lot about it.
The short story collection Murder Ballads and Other Horrific Tales contains the sequel to Southern Gods, and while it’s very much enjoyable, I’ll admit it’s a touch overshadowed by some of the other stories in the collection. To be clear, I say this as a compliment to how delightfully dark and fun some of the other tales are. As with all collections, some fall a bit shorter than others (sorry, John, very few authors can make me like a ‘dangers of artificial intelligence’ tale), but it’s very much worth checking out–just maybe skip the titular story if you want to read Southern Gods first. “The Children of Yig”, though, is an excellent Mythos short story that combines Jacobs’ love for the mythos with his love of history wonderfully.
The last of Jacobs’ horror works that I’ve experienced is A Lush and Seething Hell, and I do mean I experienced it. A collected duology of two tales just-too-short to be novellas, this work is probably Jacob’s most praised and for damn good reason. It blends the horror of the cosmic with folk horror seamlessly, all the while interweaving Jacobs’ unabashed love and knowledge of history into the pages. Reviews have even compared the writing in it to Nabakov and Faulkner–I definitely see the influence of the latter, as well as O’Connor and Jackson (though with a Southern twist in her case).
Overall, I cannot recommend enough giving his works of horror fiction a try. They are well-written, atmospheric, and genre-blending in a way that few are. While there is an occasional reliance on more cliche tropes, I can’t say that they take away from the experience of reading his works in any significant way.
A short article by my standards, but a bit more graphics work went into it. If you’d like to see more dives into authors or even individual books, just let me know in the comments below, or contact me via my Carrd!
Startling sapphire blues, sickly citrine yellows, and raging ruby reds define the gemtone soaked world of the Italian giallo horror film. Add in a mix of Italian classical music blended with high strung electronic music and screeching sound effects and you have a recipe for giallo–the razorwire tense balance of horror and crime thriller that defined the genre.
The name comes from the cheap horror thriller novels at the time, often known for their bright yellow covers (with giallo translating to yellow in Italian). While not all of the giallo films on this list fit squarely into horror in the traditional sense, all of them have a deep sensibility of the genre, particularly with the other the top camp quality of the acting and design. There’s an air of the erotic ever-present to giallo film, even moreso in some ways than the American sexploitation film movement that made movies such as Deep Throat enter the cultural lexicon.
The movies below are all giallo films that define the genre to me personally. As with all of my list articles, I do not rank hierarchically, I only discuss things I have seen, and I fully admit that all of my choices are subjective matters of opinion.
DISCLAIMER: Some of the text is copied from a prior list of the same theme that I wrote for a different blog years ago. All text is original to me, but may have appeared on the web prior under a different pseudonym.
Tenebrae / Unsane (1982)
Tenebrae is a far more subdued film than some of the more action or bloodsoaked examples of the giallo genre, more murder mystery than supernatural romp. The plot sounds almost like a Stephen King novel, and it plays out not dissimilarly to what one would expect from thriller authors like Patricia Cornwell.
An author goes on a book tour of Rome, promoting his latest mystery novel, when a series of murders begins. Clearly inspired by the author’s books, he and two detectives must get to the bottom of the film’s main mystery before another life is lost.
Tenebrae is one of Argento’s more complex works, dealing with unique themes not deeply explored but definitely present in other aspects of his ouevre: deviancy, sexual repression, voyeurism, and deep-seated trauma. The film is Argento’s critical self-examination after accusations of misogyny after the film Suspira (1977). The film’s major theme of guilt transference–the author blaming himself for being the killer’s inspiration–is perhaps the clearest reflection of this. I would say that despite the murder of women, Tenebrae also has feminist themes, with the killer’s hatred of liberated women being framed as not only evil, but also a symptom of a sick society, not only inhibited but outright diseased by what we now call toxic masculinity. It dares the viewers not to become the voyeur of these murders, but to rather be disgusted as they should, while still tempting the viewer into aligning with the perverted, patriarchal views of both society and the killer.
Tenebrae is a beautiful, psychological horror film that any fan of the genre should see at least once.
Torso has a strange dynamic with American horror in that it both borrows from and lends to one of our horror culture’s most long-standing film traditions: God’s prettiest little idiots making the worst possible choices. Though the first half meanders with much of its violence veering well into outright, unsubtle misogyny, the twist ending pays off in a fairly satisfying way that many giallo mysteries don’t conclude with when attempting a twist.
Its visuals and writing are unique enough to the sensibilities of director Sergio Martino that the film has significant artistic value, and its influence on the genre of giallo for films that followed cannot be underestimated. Being able to get past the first half is an achievement, but one that’s worth attempting for fans of the genre.
Black Sunday (1960)
My personal favorite of Mario Bava’s films, Black Sunday is also one of his first. Opening on a brilliant shot and imaginative execution scene during the witch hunts of the 1600s, the majority of the film takes place in a small Moldavian province in the 1800s. When the executed witch is accidentally woken from her slumber by a pair of clumsy traveling doctors, she begins a rampage of revenge that should culminate in her finally regaining her body in the form of her great-great-grandniece. Can the handsome young doctor save his newly beloved in time or will she be permanently erased in favor of the evil witch?
Both young maiden and old witch are played brilliantly by the preeminent scream queen Barbara Steele. With her unique beauty, she captures the viewer as both characters and all of the men surrounding her become secondary. The only film on this list filmed in black and white, Steele’s dramatic looks are enough color to capture audiences in a way that many of the colorful giallo beauty queens cannot. For any fans of classic horror, Black Sunday is required viewing.
Deep Red / Profondo Rosso (1975)
After a psychic giving a lecture has a strange vision relating to an unidentifiable member of her audience, she becomes the first seen victim of the film’s demented serial killer. When musician Marcus discovers her body, he becomes embroiled with the police in the investigation of the strange, black-gloved figure. As the brilliant but deranged killer begins leaving horrific clues for the police and Marcus, they begin closing in on a suspect. But do they have the right man? Or is the real killer more clever than they know?
In this film, Argento crafted several unique murders, designed to relate to real-life painful experiences that would be familiar to the audience. “Not everyone knows how it feels to be shot, but everyone knows the feeling of striking oneself into furniture” (Argento, paraphrased). Seen more as a cult classic than a critical success, Argento’s attempts at relatability nonetheless entertain an invested audience, and it’s worth a watch to see one of Argento’s early, transitional films.
When the ill-tempered diva playing Lady Macbeth in a daring new production of Macbeth is mysteriously injured outside of the theater, her role goes to her ingenue understudy. Following the tradition of the original Phantom, she is viewed opening night by a strange, looming figure in one of the closed theater boxes. Soon after, the ingenue’s boyfriend is gruesomely murdered. This is an Argento film after all; bright red blood is not only de jour, but necessary. As the body count in the theater rises, the Phantom comes closer to catching his prize. Can ingenue Betty and her manly costar Marco stop the Phantom and escape in time?
By far Argento’s most commercially successful film, Opera is a sharp, gory take on a legitimately, psychosexually-obsessed Phantom. It follows the formula of the core story in many important ways, but diverges beautifully in its horror. Whether you’re a fan of the Phantom, or just a fan of giallo, Opera is a fun, nasty little viewing that you should treat yourself to.
Blood and Black Lace (1964)
One of Italy’s most popular exports is its fashion, and in Blood and Black Lace, Bava brilliantly combines fashion with fear. When various fashion models working for the same fashion house begin being hunted and killed, it’s up to the police to solve the mystery before it’s too late.
The strength of this film is truly in its beautiful costumes and set pieces. Everything about this film is utterly lavish, and seeing it be destroyed in the name of creating this film is horrific enough on its own. One scene involving a pale, dark-haired model in a blood red coat being stalked, is the film’s most iconic moment; it truly brings home the exact feeling the entire movie is trying to create. The film also truly incorporates the mystery and crime-thriller aspects of giallo, letting the audience know exactly how much of a founding father of the genre Bava was.
Probably one of the most famous giallo films, and certainly the most famous of Argento’s works, Suspiria is one of the most brilliantly made films of all time, let alone this list. The story follows an ingenue arriving at a strange ballet school in the Black Forest of Germany. She begins to see strange things on the grounds and in her windows. Soon other girls begin going missing. It’s up to her to get down to the bottom of this supernatural mystery.
The first of Argento’s “Three Mothers” witchcraft trilogy, Suspiria is a cult classic and a highly influential gem of the horror genre. Its vibrant colors and creative filming techniques give the film a highly unique look that many have imitated, but few successfully. It is bolstered a good deal by its incredible, almost all female cast. Rotten Tomatoes ranks it number 41 on their top 100 list of greatest horror movies of all time, and my only disagreement is that I would put it higher. While the reimagining is also fantastic, it’s a stark departure from the source material, making the original very much worth seeing and letting it stand–or en pointe–on its own.
In The Folds Of The Flesh (1970)
Y’all this movie is wild, I ain’t even gonna try to play with y’all about that. The name alone makes it sound like softcore at minimum and given the inherent eroticism of the genre of giallo, that’s not….entirely inaccurate. Directed by Sergio Bergonzelli, the film flips the usual giallo script by the mystery being the identity of the victim as opposed to the killer. The visuals are colorful and contain many nods to pop art sensibilities, the strength and singularity of In The Folds Of The Flesh is it’s storytelling framing itself in a way apart from other giallo of the time.
It also wastes no time bogging itself in too much exposition; you absolutely spend every second on a frenetic ride through the plot, which makes the gruesome murder feel urgent as it should–a rarity in a genre that sometimes meanders in odd places. It certainly doesn’t shy away either from showing plenty of naked flesh either, making sure to emphasize the eroticism of its name while never demurring from more gruesome elements either.
The unofficial sequel to Suspiria, Inferno is the second entry in the Three Mothers trilogy. It follows the tale of a woman living in a New York City high rise apartment, who discovers the book “The Three Mothers” in the basement. In the book, she discovers the tale of the three Mothers of Sorrow, and their temples. She begins to suspect that the apartment building she lives in may be the home of one of these Mothers. Begging her brother Marc to come home from Rome, she is overwhelmed by horrible visions of the dark Mother haunting her. As strange deaths begin occurring within the building, it becomes a race against time to stop the Mother before it’s too late.
While not as constantly visually stunning as Suspiria, Inferno has a subtlety to it that I greatly enjoy. Its visually stunning scenes are brilliantly arresting against the stark grayness of the dark apartment high rise. It’s a truly worthy successor to the masterpiece of Suspiria, one that I enjoy greatly. While the third entry into the series, Mother of Tears, isn’t a very good finisher to the brilliant series, it’s definitely important to not forget Inferno after watching it’s more famous sister film.
Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
Directed by Lucio Fulci this is a film that is a bit more challenging than the others in the victimology of the killer. A child killer is on the loose in a small Italian town, and as the case baffles investigators, suspicions and tensions rise, causing the villagers to begin to turn on each other. This darkness is symbolized through a heavy departure from the defining visuals of other giallo films, Fulci’s included; it eschews vibrant colors and slick visuals in favor of more naturalistic color palettes and grittier set pieces.
While the killer is fairly obvious upon reveal, Fulci expertly weaves so many convincing red herrings into the story that it’s never overly predictable or stale. One of the perspective characters is truly vile, adding to the unease of the tension crafted by the film. While the finale is…a bit of a misstep that veers into the comedic, it doesn’t entirely ruin what the film built prior.
Directed by Lamberto Bava and produced by Dario Argento, Demons is a wickedly fun horror film to watch with a large group of friends. If you’re lucky like me and happen to have a vintage theater near you (in my case, one that specializes in vintage horror films), it’s definitely worth springing for tickets if you happen to see this come up on the marquee.
Demons is an 80s, technicolor nightmare. After a large and varied group of people are offered free tickets to a film screening, they crowd the mysterious theater, only to soon discover the horror within. The theater hides a dark secret and the movie-goers soon begin becoming possessed by demons! It becomes a fight against the hoard as one young couple begins battling their way out of the theater by any means necessary.
The set design, costuming, and hair of this movie are hilarious. Intentionally so to a degree. The film is so raucously stuck in the 80s that it’s like watching a wonderful time capsule of blood and guts. The film lays it on thick with both the gore and the over-the-top acting. It’s incredibly fun, and it should definitely be watched with company to fully enjoy how amazing it is.
Okay so teeeechnically not a giallo film, but hear me out.
Often referred to as Italy’s unofficial (or rather unlicensed) sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Zombi 2 tells the story of a Caribbean island haunted by voodoo-powered zombies. After her missing father’s boat turns up in New York Harbor with nothing but a zombie aboard, a horrified Anna becomes determined to find out what happened to her father. Journeying to the Caribbean with a cadre of companions, she discovers a doctor researching voodoo rituals and zombies in a hospital overrun with strangely ill patients. Once the zombies corner them all in the hospital, it becomes a fight for their lives.
Known primarily for its infamous “shark fighting a zombie” scene, Zombi 2 is a fun, campy take on the Dawn of the Dead universe. While not filled with the biting social commentary of the original Romero films, Fulci’s take on the universe is energetic and nasty. Originally censored in several countries, it’s recently gained somewhat of a cult following for its non-stop action horror scenes and the brilliant makeup design of the zombies.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
After the tragic death of their young daughter to an accidental drowning at their English countryside estate, a couple move to Venice for the husband’s work to try to distance themselves from the site of the tragedy. As the wife and the women she meets sense doom on the horizon, the husband and other men of the film try to rationalize away such feminine superstitions, only to be proven drastically wrong by the film’s gruesome and outright strange conclusion.
One of the most cinematically striking films on this list, Don’t Look Now soaks the viewer more in water imagery than saturated colors; however, the use of water as imagery muttered with bright pops of color (particularly red) serve to make this film all the more stunning. Though it occasionally gets reduced to remembrance for the odd twist ending and the possibly real scene of sexual intimacy between the married-off-screen husband and wife costars, the film has an oddly feminist message regarding believing women, even though the framing is odd to say the least. It’s an amazing film which stands apart from many others of the giallo style, and I highly recommend it to even those who do not typically enjoy the genre.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Berberian Sound Studio (2012) Kill, Baby, Kill! (1966) The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970) Black Sabbath (1963) Phenomena (1985) Lisa and the Devil (1973) The Beyond (1981)
There’s something to be said for the horror novel–unlike the horror film, everything in the novel is up to the imagination of the reader, which can sometimes be more devastating. To quote Indian actor Hrithik Roshan, as stated in an instagram video:
“I’m so curious about knowing the unknown; it can be scary, but I see it as a game.”
So many of us see the art of horror films and novels in such a way. How scary can it really be? How deeply can it really affect us? And usually, there are a few that linger in the mind as frightening or intriguing beyond the norm. Few, in my experience, actually disturb too deeply.
But they exist. They very much exist; and once they crawl and burrow their way into the mind of the reader, they become very difficult to get out. I’m including a disclaimer with trigger and content warnings ahead of the article. I am also including honorable mentions first, with the reason I did not include it on the final list.
DISCLAIMER: The following books are listed as disturbing for a reason. I absolutely respect that everyone is going to have triggers or be upset by certain content, and therefore I am warning ahead of time and encouraging anyone who might be interested in a book to dig further before reading. I am giving you the tools needed to help with your mental health but past that, the choice is in your hands. The following books contain these triggers (though not every book has all of them):
Child sexual abuse
Murder, including lynching and femicide
Torture and abuse
Misogyny and misogynistic violence
Racism and race based violence
Alcohol and drug use
Sex worker abuse
I believe this should cover everything, but again I encourage anyone interested in a title to read ahead and read in depth looks online for more information.
The following are honorable mentions with a brief line as to why I did not include them on the list. There are also plenty of disturbing books that I just won’t read due to certain contents that I know will trigger bad thoughts in me, and I am ultimately the one responsible for my own mental health and well-being.
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver: Whereas this book is disturbing, I didn’t feel the same visceral reaction to it that many seem to have. The narrative voice of the mother is a bit too alien to me.
Haunted by Chuck Palahnuik: Honestly seemed mostly written for shock value. Was gross to me, but not disturbing?
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis: I think if the narrator were a bit different it would have disturbed me more, personally; but I also admit that the narrator being exactly who he is is what makes it effective and proves the point. A good read, just not for me.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy: Just…didn’t disturb me? Depressed me, but didn’t linger with me other than vague distaste which put me off reading more McCarthy.
Lolita by Vladamir Nabokov: Much like later similar books which I did not bother to read, I just…don’t read books where the main disturbing quality is that the narrator is a predator of children.
Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite
I wanna say I was about 21 when I first read this. I loved horror already, of course, but as far as adult horror reading I had done in my life, I wasn’t particularly ahead of the curve. King, Lovecraft, and House of Leaves by Danielewski as a community challenge on livejournal. I’d read some Barker, but none of his horror–rather one of his fantasy stories with darker elements, Imajica, had gripped ahold of me. I curiously wondered what else horror might have to offer to me as a curious reader in the lgbtq+ community. There were other works by Barker, of course, but another list of horror with gay characters listed the works of Poppy Z. Brite.
Oh, I thought naively. I like Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon and other movies about killers. I’ll be fine.
…y’all, I was not okay!
Andrew is a serial killer, who fakes his own death to escape execution. As he flees to New Orleans, he meets the bored, wealthy, and secretly sadistic Jay, who quickly determines that Tran would be the perfect victim for the horrifying couple to murder together. Tran himself is on the run from his abusive ex Lucas. The four collide in one explosive night that will undoubtedly leave readers traumatized and put off the exceptionally dark for quite awhile.
There are quite a few authors who get well into the heads of dark characters, but Brite’s narrator Andrew Comptom is a twisted atrocity of a man matched only by his eventual love interest Jay. Lucas is terrible in his own way, as well, and the victim, Tran, is the only character in the novel worthy of sympathy. Though outside of sympathy…damn, all of them are compelling characters.
That said, no one writes a villain protagonist quite like Brite, and I find his writing incredibly influential to my own.
Gone to See the River Man by Kristopher Triana
What I went into assuming was a story about a delusional yet ultimately sympathetic serial killer groupie dragged into a nightmare by her obsession, turned out to be one of the darkest character reveals I’ve ever witnessed in fiction.
Gone to See the River Man follows Lori, a 39-year-old true crime junkie and serial killer groupie, who is in a rapidly turned toxic dynamic with convicted killer penpal Edmund Cox. Cox requests Lori go to a cabin in the woods of Killeen, retrieve a key, and deliver it to a mysterious figure called the River Man. But as Lori goes on her journey, dragging her disabled sister in toe, it becomes starkly clear that there’s more darkness to Lori than we could ever imagine.
Despite this novel being labeled “splatterpunk”, it’s less the bloodiness of the story that stains your mind–rather it’s the incredibly dark reveal of who Lori is slowly leaching its way into the nooks and crannies of your mind like an oil spill. Long after I’ve forgotten the admittedly affective scenes of gore or brutality, I still remember Lori. And I’m not sure I want to.
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
‘Iain Banks has great sci-fi novels, lemme give this a try–’ I thought to myself when I got my copy of The Wasp Factory. Later that week, after I’d finished it. I returned it to the used media store for store credit and determined to stick to the Culture novels instead of…whatever Wasp Factory had been. Startlingly misogynistic for one thing, though that’s the characters and not Banks himself using them as a mouthpiece for his actual beliefs. In fact, one could and should successfully be able to argue he is critiquing such thoughts.
Frank lives with his father in a remote Scottish village. Their lives are ones of bizarre rituals, bound to the father’s obsessions. The monotony is broken up by Frank’s outbursts of violence, which only worsen when his brother returns to the tiny village, having escaped a psychiatric facility. As the story unfolds, revealing one horrifying truth after another, it becomes clear that no one in this terrible family is free from the curses of violence, sadism, and toxic masculinity (this is text btw, not subtext) that bind them together.
This is…a helluva first novel from Iain Banks who went on to write the fascinating but far less horrifying Culture series of science fiction novels. It’s incredibly difficult to make it through a lot of the parts, and even though it is a critique of toxic masculinity, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia in so many ways, it’s still potentially triggering to read. That said, the despicable characters crafted by Banks are fascinated. Once you’re caught in the wasp factory, it’s only a matter of which path you choose which decides your fate.
Out by Natsuo Kirino
Technically not a horror novel, this crime and mystery novel from Japan is still disturbing enough to qualify for this list. One of the defining texts of the “iyamisu” genre (translating literally to “ew fiction”), Out is a white knuckle murder mystery–a story of four desperate women both helping and destroying each other in devastating ways.
The tale follows four women working at a bento factory, exploring their interpersonal dynamics both before and after the conflict occurs. Things are already tense and depressing at the start, but when one of the women murders her abusive husband in self-defense and the group plots to dispose of him, things go truly haywire. As the murder is discovered from bodily evidence, the group begins fighting, trying to blackmail each other, and trying to ensure that everyone takes the fall but herself. The climax is shocking but thematically fitting (in my opinion), cementing this novel’s place on the list even as parts stretch credulity.
This is ultimately a very socially thematic novel, with each woman representing and critiquing an aspect of Japanese society and its repressive roles for women. The author does this brilliantly, showing her deep and personal understanding in each of the main female characters. For fans of mystery who want something a touch darker, without diving into the sheer horror of other texts on this list, Out is a great doorway to disturbing fiction.
Confessions by Kanae Minato
Another entry from the iyamisu subgenre of Japanese horror-mystery, Confessions is a story of vengeance, violation, and body horror that is difficult to describe without spoiling it. However, the shocking premise is revealed in the first few pages, and the rest of the novel follows the devolution of the characters in such a way that haunts the reader.
Widowed young teacher Yuko announces to her class that she will be leaving the teaching profession once break is over. Her young daughter was found drowned in a pool, and she cannot take the heartbreak of it. Slowly, she reveals that the drowning was not an accident, but a cruel murder by two students in the class who she does not name, but admits are protected under the Juvenile Law of 1947. This law ensures that the punishment for their crime would be light, which Yuko cannot accept. She has contaminated the drinks of the two students with the blood of her late husband who died of complications related to HIV.
And that’s just the opening chapter.
The remainder of the book only gets more unhinged.
I won’t say more though, just that this book utterly ruined most of the mystery genre for me from here on out cause it was so damn good. There’s also a film version of the novel that is very faithful and well done, and I highly recommend it.
Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage
A spooky kid novel? Really? You might be asking yourself this, which is totally valid. I’m not normally one to be that freaked out by disturbing kid books, especially after teaching. Yes, some kids are dangerous and scary (see honorable mention of We Need to Talk About Kevin, Shriver), but after years of teaching, most “scary” kids are just…weird. Or worse, abused, and have become scary through no fault of their own. As a former “scary” kid, who was really just repressed and undiagnosed as neurodivergent, more of than than not my sympathies are with the scary kids.
I have no sympathy for Hanna. The book goes out of its way to show that her poor mother is NOT imagining things, that Hanna IS evil, and that she is actively gaslighting everyone around them both to convince them that it’s her poor mother Suzette who is insane. This hurts as a reader, especially since we see how damn hard Suzette is trying to be a good mother.
There were a lot of complaints I saw about the internal monologue of Hanna being too mature, but I personally enjoyed those sections, finding them intensely disturbing. It’s less of a looking into Hanna’s actual wording, I felt, and more a translation of her thoughts to the reader. As someone who worked with seven year olds, I don’t understand the desire for writing for them in fiction to be developmentally appropriate–barring some advanced students, their writing isn’t really readable, and should be more an example of progress than actual literary quality?
Overall, I highly recommend this freaky Bram Stoker Award finalist as the ultimate Scary Kid Book, save for maybe the more realistic We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica
This is a book about lots of things. Factory farming. Misogynistic objectification. Commodification of the working class.
There’s no easy way to describe this book, other than labeling my read of it as one of the most deeply unpleasant experiences I have ever had while reading a book that is actually well written that I tentatively agree with the premise of. The ending is hyped as the most disturbing last line of a novel/novella, and you know what? FAIR.
This book is deeply sickening though, so even though I do totally think it has so much socio-political and artistic value, PLEASE be careful of your own mental health going into it.
In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami
Technically an iyamisu novel, there is no real mystery in this terrifying and disgusting tale from an author who calls himself “the other Murakami” with a sardonic grin. We know the criminal. We know the crimes. We just live in suspense of the increased brutality and the unknowable quantity of where he’ll strike next…and whether our narrator and his significant other will be the next victims.
Kenji is a morally gray protagonist, living life in the 1990s as a tour guide for sex tourists in a Japan increasingly shutting down the practice due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. When he’s contacted by a creepy American man, he shoves down his misgivings–after all, most of the guys he guides around are real creeps anyway, right? But something is…wrong with Frank. More wrong than anyone else he’s ever met. As blood begins to spill and Kenji is held hostage by threats to his and his girlfriend Jun’s life, we’re on the edge of our seats as readers watching the depravity through his eyes.
This book does NOT hold back on brutality. With Murakami writing this story as a metaphor for consumerism and the emptiness thereof, it’s clear that he thinks of it as an act of destruction. This work can also be read as a critique of the exotification and commodification of women–in fact, it’s difficult to not read it as such, even though the blood-streaked lenses one views the story through.
I devoured this short book in one sitting and still think about it to this day. I highly recommend it.
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
The first three whole times I tried to read this book, I couldn’t make it past the first fourth of the text. While the film does more justice to building tension through slowburn and implication, the novel leaves no room for imagination on exactly every horror of the vampire Eli’s story, the monster that aids them in finding victims, and the fate of Oskar as he slowly falls for Eli.
This book has graphic mentions of child molestation. I cannot and will not beat around the bush on that. There are other graphic abuses in other books listed here, but the ones in Let the Right One In are what kept me from completing the novel for years.
That said, it is a wonderful tribute to the horrific and brutally realistic experience that a being like Eli would experience. If you can get through it, it’s very much worth a read, but…
I don’t blame you if you can’t get through it.
When the Reckoning Comes by LaTanya McQueen
Jordan Peele produced, Nia DaCosta directed adaptation WHEN?
Mira hasn’t returned to her hometown in over a decade, when her (white) high school best friend calls her, gleefully announcing she’s engaged to marry the local wealthy heir to a tobacco fortune. The wedding? To be held at the gorgeous plantation house in the woods, its blood-soaked history hidden by white paint and scroll-topped columns and now converted to a historical touring location. As Mira collides with her ex-friend Jesse–one of the only other Black women from the town–memories resurface both from the womens’ pasts and the bloody past of the plantation.
This book deals with racial dynamics that I have not experienced and therefore cannot dissect, other than to say McQueen deftly handles every aspect, creating a compelling horror story with a message. It’s an incredibly dark and disturbing historical horror that also pushes forward and centers Black queer narratives in a way that the genre needs. Despite being scary as hell, I very much encourage folks to read it.
The Cipher by Kathe Koja
Kathe Koja writes like no one else and I mean that in the best possible way–she takes a mix of the cosmic, the folk, and the analog horror genres and somehow makes it work in the most disgusting and horrifying way possible. The Cipher is the most excellent example of that, with some reviewers even saying it made them feel ill (and me too, tbh, I’m reviewers).
When a video store clerk and his friend find a cosmic portal in the back of the movie store, they begin to experiment with its powers. However, as they slowly experiment, the portal seems to be experimenting back. It soon devolves into a cosmic flavor of body horror like no other.
It’s difficult to describe without getting into spoiler territory, but please give this under-appreciated gem of a novel a chance!
Uzumaki by Junji Ito
When a town slowly becomes infected by spirals, it devolves into cosmic body horror that is simultaneously disgusting and visually iconic. Ito’s stories, writing, concepts, and art are impeccable and none of his manga emphasize that like Uzumaki.
The inclusion of a manga instead of a straight up novel may raise some eyebrows, but y’all.
Y’all, I threw up twice reading this manga. Heaved a few other times. Not even exaggerating. This book had me MESSED UP.
It’s odd, perhaps, as this is one of the most iconic on this list, that it provoked such a visceral reaction in me (and others), but for those who haven’t been initiated to the world of Ito yet….whew boy, he is worth it.
Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke by Eric LaRocca
Two lonely hearts connect online, and things rapidly begin spinning out of control.
This book got a lot of hype on tiktok for being a queer horror story, and while this description is technically true, it disgusting and divided many readers with just how intense the story was. While I adored it, it’s definitely not one for the masses, as it blends an already divisive social media/internet-based epistolary style of writing with some of the most disturbing content I’ve ever seen put to this style.
Body horror? Check. Fungal horror? Absolutely. This book is queer in all sense, not just in the characters’ identities but in the identity of the book itself. Definitely one for stronger stomachs and a willingness to read unapologetically disturbing content.
So what do y’all think? Do you agree with these choices if you’ve read them? Disagree? Are there other novels you think should have been included (or would have, rather, if you’d written this list)? Leave a comment below to start the discussion!
“It’s been reported that once inside the theater, a number of moviegoers vomited at the very graphic goings-on on the screen. Others fainted, or left the theater, nauseous and trembling, before the film was half over. Several people had heart attacks, a guard told me…”– Judy Klemesrud, “They Wait Hours to Be Shocked”, NYT, Jan. 27, 1974
We’ve always been unduly fascinated with horror so visceral that it invokes a physical response. Fainting, swooning, vomiting, and other semi-apocryphal tales dot the historical landscape of certain horror giants. The above quote regarding a particular viewing of The Exorcist embodies this phenomenon, if not defines it in the mind of fans when we discuss such instinctual physical reactions to horror media.
Despite The Exorcist being the quintessential icon of this trope in modern days though, it was hardly its progenitor. No, that honor goes to a strange little theater in the Pigalle district of Paris, France at the turn of the century in 1897.
Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol (The Theater of the Great Puppet)–no one contemporary to the founding of the smallest theatrical venue in Paris could have possibly guessed the lasting impact of the place upon its opening. The tiniest theater in the disreputable stage district would eventually become so associated with horror, particularly the splatterpunk genre, that it would become a generic term for all bloodsoaked visual performance art. What initially was viewed as an obstacle–the architecture of the chapel which the building housed prior–only became a boon, with the theatergoers getting a sacreligious kick out of the confessional booths becoming viewing boxes for the irreverent plays. To top off the aesthetic, the theater was named for Guignol, a puppet character made famous in the region of Lyon for combining slapstick comedy with incisive political commentary.
Founder Oscar Méténier founded the theater with the intent to focus on plays about characters eschewed by polite society: criminals, sex workers, beggers, and others of the oppressed class. He had, for a time, followed his father’s footsteps in policing, but had a deep desire to devote himself to the arts. He viewed the Grand Guignol as a place where naturalistic performance could be encouraged (as opposed to the romanticism popular at the time). Méténier wrote and directed dozens of plays himself, with his most famous being La Puissance des Ténèbres–a translated modification of Leo Tolstory’s five-act play, The Power of Darkness. However, this adaptation was never performed at the Grand Guignol (from what I could find), despite the main characters being criminals or unfortunate people, fitting the theme of many other Guignol plays.
Méténier used his time as a police officer to inspire many of the brutal crime-fueled plays. Patrons of the Grand Guignol could expect to see five to six short plays for the evening, often horror plays alternated with bawdy comedies (a practice called “hot and cold showers”). The horror plays were bloody affairs, usually relying on natural explanations for the horror–crime, insanity, or panic–rather than the supernatural or paranormal often seen in the more romantic gothic plays elsewhere.
The main mastermind behind the plays was librarian, novelist, and playwright André de Latour, comte de Lorde. His fascination for the study of horror was infamous, with his friends dubbing him Prince de la Terreur (prince of terror) in the 1920s. He collaborated often with the famed psychologist Alfred Binet, co-creator of the IQ testing process, particularly on plays or other works which involved themes of criminal insanity and panic disorders.
Even the famed author Gaston Leroux, who penned Phantom of the Opera, wrote plays for the theater. Perhaps, his concept for the opera ghost haunting the dark patron boxes came from the architecture of the Grand Guignol?
While Méténier billed his plays as naturalistic, this label would seem odd to us today looking at the heightened melodramatics of the plays. As such, the term guignol as a disambiguation would come to be associated with films and plays which embodied the spirit of camp (i.e. deliberately exaggerated and theatrical behavior or style). The term Grande Dame Guignol in particular became a byword for horror productions who made use of the skills of aging actresses who might otherwise be overlooked by major productions–an excellent example of this would be the psychological drama What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as aging sister actresses.
One Grand Guignol grand dame who embodied this more than any other was Paula Maxa, one of the Grand Guignol’s best-known performers overall. Known as “the most assassinated woman in the world”, Maxa played the victim frequently in the literal sense. Her characters were murdered more than 10,000 times in at least 60 different ways and suffered sexual assault at least 3,000 times. She would have a few more empowered roles as she grew older, but her legacy as a doomed progenitor of the scream queen was sealed with such a resume.
Beyond that, the Grand Guignol gave rise to the popular image of the mad scientist. Despite André de Lorde having decent working relationships with some doctors, it was clear he had some of the same contemporary suspicions as others of medical institutions and many who worked within them. Many of his plays categorized medical researchers as mad men, held only in esteem due to the social contract and the hope that their deranged research might bring some useful fruit. It never did. The plays of de Lorde influenced the trope so heavily in popular culture that it can likely be pointed to as the reason Victor Frankenstein changed so drastically from the novel in other portrayals on stage and in film–which in turn influenced the trope from there on.
Of course, the Grand Guignol influenced horror as an entire genre as well. Until that point, horror was viewed as solely escapism: stories of fantasy with ghosts, witches, and fictional creatures which were (usually) defeated by the end of the tale. In contrast, the stories of de Lorde and his cohorts frightened audiences with tales that were exaggerated, yes, but still within the realm of possibility. While the psychological did often devolve to mindless violence in the theater, it still frightened audiences with the reality of possibility. The Grand Guignol audience became known to be as rowdy as the goings on on-stage, with guests fainting, heaving, or screaming and fleeing from their seats.
To quote Jason Colavito in his text Knowing Fear: Science, Knowledge and the Development of the Horror Genre: “Horror became a vehicle for ideas and philosophy where deep insights gave way to spectacle, and spectacle to violence and gore, until in the end little was left but the gore.”
An English version of the Grand Guignol opened in London in 1908 and again in the 1920s, under the direction of Jose Levy. It featured stellar talents on stage, including performances by Sybil Thorndike and Noël Coward. Several of these plays were filmed and still exist at the BFI National Archive. The Grand Guignol has had massive influences on British horror, particularly as the play morphed into the film as production studios such as Hammer Films opened their doors.
There was also the technical engineering aspect of the theater which made it so unique. Actor and effects artist Paul Ratineau pioneered countless illusions still built off of in horror productions: fake blood that congealed under stage light, realistic false eyeballs, and makeup which melted like an acid burn. Why, the man even invented a method of artificially flaying another actor alive live on stage! It’s no wonder that it’s difficult to believe all of the tales of faintings are apocryphal–after all, the sound of artificial skin ripping and tearing as it was shredded from the body surely elicited an audience reaction.
This, combined with the gimmick of advertising an on-site doctor to help those of weak constitution who passed out at the sight of such violence, sold countless tickets to the box office.
Until it didn’t.
Despite its resonant influence on culture, the horrors of the Grand Guignol would soon pale. The site that was once as popular a destination for tourists to the City of Lights as the Eiffel Tower would have a dramatic fall off of patronage. It was not due to lack of creativity on behalf of the directors, though, nor could it wholly be blamed on the rise of films alone. Rather it was the horrifying creativity of real world forces, as World War I ripped across Europe, bringing with it untold horrors that had never been witnessed or imagined before. It only struggled more after World War II; no one could laugh at horror after the revelations of what happened at the German labor camps.
As recorded by Time Magazine in 1962: “We could never equal Buchenwald,” said [the theater’s] final director, Charles Nonon. “Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and [so much] worse, are possible in reality.”
The Grand Guignol shuttered its doors that year.
Its legacy lives on in countless ways, inspiring horror movies from the birth of film all the way until horror movies in 2022. Without the Grand Guignol, there were be no Herschel Gordon Lewis inventing the splatter film, no Dario Argento and other craftsmen of giallo, no New French Extremist horror movement, no modern genre of “horror torture porn” (though some would argue that might be for the better).
Beyond all that, anytime a film advertises with the lurid promise that someone, somewhere passed out or vomited while viewing, therein lies the spirit of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol: the blood, the insanity, the gore, the gimmick, and the legacy.