Pop Culture at its Best

The (In)Security of Horror: What Max Brooks Got Wrong about the Horror Genre

Max Brooks on Discovery Channel show Sons of Guns

In a profile by Taffy Brodesser-Akner for the New York Times, Max Brooks, author of both World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide, is apparently quite serious about the zombie apocalypse. I have little doubt that Max Brooks is an intelligent man, and behind his facade of anxiety and fear, I think he has a fairly ironic sense of humour. That being said, I don’t think he understands horror or its fans. He says:

“I’m not a horror fan,” he said. “I’m an anti-horror fan. I think horror fans feel deep down in the pit of their souls, they feel safe, and therefore bored. And therefore they want to be scared. I already have a baseline level of just anxiety about the world I live in,” he continued, metaphorically pushing the horror genre away from him on the table. “I don’t need to go seeking it out.”

Without having read his books, I can’t personally comment on whether I think his own works fit into my personal understanding of the horror genre, but as a horror fan, I can’t help feeling there is a bit of a misconception of the value and power of the horror genre.

Zombies on their own do not make a horror film, and in recent years we have seen monsters of all kinds bridging the gap, entering into all sorts of genres from action to rom-com. The monster and horror are no longer synonymous and this is not necessarily a bad thing. But let’s not use this as an excuse to condemn or pretend it’s because horror itself is somehow inefficient, outdated and safe.

From the article, Max Brooks sees his own work in the zombie lore as being removed from fantasy. He believes his work being better placed in the “how-to” or “self-help” section of the book store. For him, the zombie apocalypse represents a possibility of exploring humanity in the face of true survival. His idea of the nitty-gritty of zombies is to see the responses of social and political institutions, and the spread of disease in the face of the undead. Death by dysentery is a more powerful image for Brooks than the sense of dread inspired by hell overflowing with souls. Perhaps he sees his work as being closer to Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant pandemic-procedural Contagion than any of Romero’s works. In the beautiful, dark and varied world we live in, there is space for this kind of narrative but that doesn’t de-value the power of horror and dread.

To dismiss the horror genre as one for people who feel safe and bored, is to make a judgement that completely robs horror of its power. I can only speak for myself when I say that I don’t gravitate towards horror because I feel safe, I gravitate towards it because of how unsafe I feel.

In the painting “La Condition Humaine”, by French surrealist painter Rene Magritte, a painting canvas in the “trompe l’oeil” style suggests a painting perfectly connected to the reality it is portraying. Instead of inspiring a sense of security, however, the boundary between art and reality are disturbed and convoluted. Though we can only assume what lies beyond the painting is safe and likely identical to the painting itself, this work of art points to a pointed unrest of The Human Condition (see what I did there). Beyond the guise of normal life, is the idea that something unseen, unknown and ominous lies just beyond is a source of insecurity and fear in the process of creation itself.

Most of the best horror reveals an uncertainty in our social structures and norms, and often times the best way to deconstruct and confront these fears is through myth, narrative and the power of metaphor. Historically, horror was always a genre in which ideas or concepts that were unsafe for the mainstream media could be explored. From the works of Val Lewton, to the commie scare or the atomic fears, horror became a venue in which we were able to explore through monsters, killers and the unknown, society’s biggest fears, doubts and faults.

Horror is not a genre about security, and though there are a number of horror films that will re-establish the status quo once the conflict is resolved, the best and most beloved films subvert any sense of security we may have. Sometimes the monster represents something larger and darker, like Godzilla or the Cloverfield monster, but horror is sometimes just about the fear of being alive and knowing one day we might lose everything through either death or disillusionment. Horror reveals the anxiety that we work so hard to repress or forget, in some ways, it is a radical indictment on socially motivated lies that exist to quell chaos and maintain inequities in the social order. In the face of pandemics, war or even zombies, sometimes the greatest threats are those of the everyday. This is where horror thrives, teasing us that behind the perfectly painted image is a great and terrifying unknown.

–          Justine Smith

  1. Kevin says

    You know, ever since I heard your praise of the “Tron” remake a few years ago I thought I wouldn’t agree with you ever again … until this great article:)

    I have yet to see World War Z but your critique of Max Brooks’ quote was bang on!

    By the way, great hearing you on the latest sound on sight podcast. Like many of the hosts on there, although I don’t usually agree with you your insight and perspectives are great to hear.

    1. Justine says

      Even a broken clock is right twice a day, amiright? ;) I am happy that I still get slack for Tron: Legacy, I am not entirely sure it’s something to be proud of, but I guess I am.

      I am not sure if World War Z is exactly worth seeing. I didn’t bring it up, if only out of respect for Max Brooks since he has pretty much dissociated himself from the adaptation, so it really had little place in my analysis. It is a decent action film I guess, but not particularly memorable and lacks any real depth. You certainly could do worse though.

      I was very happy to be back and it is always a pleasure that some of our listeners feel the same.

  2. Justine says

    I’ve never read them, thanks for the rec though! i’ll check em’ out.

  3. Jack Deth says

    Hi, Justine:

    Nice, informative piece.

    When all else fails. I fall back on Warren comics,
    ‘Creepy’ from the 1970s and 80s. And their superb ‘The Super Abnormality Phenomena Survival Kit’.


    Which covers most encounters of the other than
    normal kind.

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