Most horror fans will stop reading Guardian critic Lucy Mangan's review of the new Netflix series The Haunting of Bly Manner after her opening five words: "I am no horror fan."
If one dares to read on, the rest of the paragraph will likely cause a reddening of the vision. "I am," she writes, "quite frightened enough in and by real life, thank you, and stumble too over the large obstacle presented by the fact that ghosts and their ilk DO NOT EXIST THEREFORE CANNOT BE SCARY. The horror of humanity begins a long way before man’s worst efforts – the supernatural doesn’t even make it over the fear horizon."
Of course, Mangan's welcome to her view--and, without logging on to Twitter, I imagine she's getting pilloried over her introductory sentiments. Horror's not everyone's chalice of blood. But the tried and tired position that reality is terrible, therefore the elevation and alteration of that terror--nevermind the assurance that there's nothing more to reality than what our five dumb senses can pick up on--is as needless as it is dismissive.
I agree with Mangan on one point, though. Real life is terrifying. Peter Counter would agree, too. Across the twenty-nine essays of Be Scared of Everything, Counter argues horror's value as an "in addition to" as opposed to "instead of" reality's travails. The basis of these pieces are cultural fare--such as the work of HP Lovecraft, or The X-Files, or Pokémon--as well as direct experience with both the spookily inexplicable and the horrifyingly explicable.
In the collection's first essay, "Interview with My Family's Ouija Board," Counter weighs the question that, for Magnan, is not a question. Do ghosts exist? As he and his family skate a planchet around a spirit board, talking to someone or something, he considers where the communication may actually hail from.
"The secular explanation to Ouija is ideomotor response. Essentially, it’s a type of automatic writing powered by a feedback loop between your eyes, your subconscious mind, and the board. You ask a question with the expectation of having the answer spelled out and, as it is revealed letter by letter, your brain starts puzzle-solving and providing the subsequent characters. The effect is uncanny, and sometimes it feels like the board is reading your mind as the planchette drags your hands around the alphabet. At its best, the experience spurs self-reflection and an examination of the narratives we trace for ourselves. Self Improvement, contemplation, and contentment are the rewards of rationalist approaches to divination."
So the call may be coming from inside the house--a reasoning Magnan would ideally be placated by--though this explanation proves a little ill-fitting when Counter and the rest of his seance party commune with a spirit claiming to be his oma, though some of the details they press for don't quite line up with what they know of her. In the end, the family is left to chalk up "the unsettling interactions to our lingering remorse that we never really knew her as well as we should have."
Counter's agnosticism for the otherworldly gets further articulated a few essays later, when he discusses the effect The X-Files has had on credulity and how that affects his own willingness to believe his brother's story of having seen a UFO. In the end, it's the meaning of the U that colours both this and other experiences with the supernatural. A UFO, by definition, describes uncertainty. UFO's exist. "The unidentified. The unknown. The unclassifiable."
Ghosts may not exist, and aliens may not exist, but our terrible reality is chockablock with capital Us.
The essays in Be Scared of Everything are the best body horror amalgam of criticism and biography. Horror and other eldritch fare provide Counter with a sort of shadow box through which to engage with the real life that frightens Magnan so. But horror doesn't only provide Counter with context. Horror's ultimately a lifesaver.
Not wanting to speak about someone else's trauma, I'll just say that Counter lives with PTSD. "My obsession with horror sprouted naturally from my PTSD," he writes. "After therapy helped me get my violent and depressive ideation under control, I discovered that frightening and pessimistic entertainment was cathartic. Scary video games simulated minor hypervigilance symptoms, venting my built up nervous energy. Scary movies gave me something else to have nightmares about. My raving was addressed by reading scary stories."
Indeed, reality is tough. Counter is a wonderful explorer of how tough reality can be. But reality is also strange, and inexplicable, and wonderful. And perhaps the most frightening thing is to be left to make joyless, cruel sense of it all on your own.