Don't Look Now
The last piece I'm going to leave you with this year is an essay I wrote about my love of horror. Content warnings for gore and death.
Happy holidays! I'm beaming December vibes to you all.
“To learn what we fear is to learn who we are.” - Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
There was this game we played as kids. You’d sit in a circle, lights out, and somebody would tell a scary story. The story would be about a person exploring a haunted house, or a dark basement, or an abandoned asylum. The storyteller would describe opening a door, or a cupboard, or an old wooden chest, and putting their hand inside to grope into the darkness. And in the real world, we’d pass around a shoebox, and you’d have to reach in your hand and touch the horror inside ... eyeballs! (peeled grapes), a knot of human hair! (a wig), hairy tarantulas! (pipe cleaners), a collection of human ears! (dried apple slices). Nothing beat that feeling: sitting in the dark, listening to the gasps and screams and nervous giggles as the box made its way around to you, that quivering anticipation, that dread delight.
I’ve been a horror junkie for as long as I can remember. By the time I was eleven, R.L. Stine had published 109 Goosebumps books, and I must have read at least 108 of them. After I finished everything in the kids’ section, my librarian reluctantly allowed me to start borrowing from the adult horror section, where I dug into the Stephen Kings and never really climbed out again. I was a lonely kid, hiding on the stoep at aftercare while the other kids played boisterous screaming games in the garden, working my way through 736 pages of Needful Things. I once got into so much trouble because a second-grade girl named Justine cuddled up next to me and asked me to read to her, and I did, and the other kids heard and joined in, and before I knew it I was reading the rats scene from Salem’s Lot out loud to fifteen nine-year-olds. My poor mother; she had to field a lot of angry phone calls the next day.
It’s not that I don’t get scared easily. I do! If anything, I think I love horror because I am more afraid than most people. Horror confirms everything I already expect from life. Of course there’s a creature living under your bed. Of course the person in the mirror isn’t really you. Of course the call is coming from inside the house. Of course there’s a man standing right behind you as you read this — don’t look now, but he has a tiny knife and he wants to carve off bits of your body.
I suffered from night terrors. Bone-rattling nightmares that would wake me every single night. I buttressed myself in teddy bears before I went to sleep, tucking every single toy I owned around me like a fortress. It never worked. A few hours later, I’d wake up heart-shuddering, sweat-bathed, desperate for help. I’d fling myself up, making sure that the first leap got my feet out of grasping-range of whatever was under my bed, and I’d run for my safe harbour: my father. I’d slip into his side of the bed, long past the age most children grow out of sleeping in their parents’ bed. He’d give a huff of irritation, but pull me close and let me spend the rest of the night nestled in safety there.
My dad was a huge man, even huger in the eyes of a daughter. He was six-foot-four with a big moustache and a big belly and a big voice. His joy was enormous. He was the centre of every room, telling an elaborate joke, an absurd story. How he lived on a beach for a year selling weed. How he once wrestled a bull. How his second marriage lasted for three weeks. How he blew up an abandoned building with a chlorine bomb, for fun.
His rage was enormous, too. He was still getting into bar fights well into his sixties, and had what we euphemistically referred to as a temper. It would come out of nowhere — or it would seem to, if you weren’t fluent in my father. What you had to watch for was him getting extra funny, clowning extra hard. That was the kind of humour that had a blade tucked inside of it.
It didn’t happen often, but there were nights he’d come home stinking of rum and danger. Extra merry. My mother and brother would make themselves scarce, but I never had to. I learned young how to ride the waves of my dad’s anger. I’d convince him to watch Teletubbies with me until he sobered up and stopped looking for a fight. We both found Teletubbies hilarious. We developed our own theory that the whole thing was really about four teenagers who’d taken too much LSD and that the sun-baby was their one sober friend, trying to hold it all together.
We adored each other, my dad and I. My father had four kids and three wives but I got the best of him. I was also terrified of him sometimes, but love and fear aren’t opposites. I loved my father’s violence; you could hide underneath it, if you made yourself small enough.
Dread is the energy that pulls you through a horror story. You don’t want to look; you have to look. You don’t want to see what’s in the box, but it’s worse not to see it. You put your hands over your face, and then you peep through your fingers.
My friend Dale teases me for bringing blankets to the cinema when we watch horror movies together, so I can hide under them. He rates the scariness of horror movies in numbers of “Sam-blankets”, like, “that was a three Sam-blankets movie”. I still do this even though I am thirty-five years old, even though I have spent hundreds of hours watching horror movies, even though I profess to love them.
Horror movies toy with you, showing you just glimpses of the bad thing. It’s a shadow in the bushes. It’s standing just behind you, out of focus. It’s there for just a moment in the doorway, but when you turn around, it’s already gone. The monster is always scarier before you see it. Not-seeing is the cauldron where dread is made.
But a horror director can’t play this game forever. At some point, they have to show their hand. That’s usually the point where the director reaches for the second powerful emotion of horror: disgust. This is where we flip on the lightswitch and see the room drenched in blood, the boiling mass of rats, the possessed child vomiting all over you, the fingernails being pulled out one by one. If dread is fearing what you haven’t yet seen, disgust is seeing more than you want to. The things you wish you could unsee.
Different subgenres of horror lean more on one of these emotions or the other, but the dance between dread and disgust is what energises most great horror fiction. It is a rare work of horror that manages to be all dread and no disgust, and still feel satisfying. The only example I can think of is Shirley Jackson’s incomparable The Haunting of Hill House, and even that features words painted onto a wall in blood, and you could argue that it’s the protagonist’s disgust with herself that motivates the final violent act of the novel (I'm being deliberately coy here in case you've never read it).
Sure, there are whole subgenres of horror that are 99% disgust with very little dread, but these aren’t exactly held up as paragons of the genre. Some friends and I used to have a Bad Horror Club in Cape Town. Every Monday night we’d meet up, order noodles, and watch the worst splattercore or body horror or B-horror we could find. We got our hands onto some real stinkers. Blood Shed, which was about — yup! — a murderous garden shed. I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle, which involves not only a bloodthirsty Norton Commando but also a talking poop. Society, which features a scene where somebody punches a dude up the butt, reaches through his entire digestive system, grabs his mouth, and pulls him inside out. You can watch the whole scene online if you don’t believe me. Bad horror is a festival of disgust.
But good horror, too, requires embodiment. Horror is about fear, and the fear underneath all other fears is death. That’s why we’re repulsed by sickness, by pus, by blood, by the dark and the things that might be hiding inside of it. Sometimes the small moments of embodiment are the most disturbing. Stephen King’s Carrie is a novel with an impressive body count and (literal) buckets of blood, but the thing I remember most clearly is a tiny moment where Carrie is looking at herself in the mirror. “She hated her [own] face, her dull, stupid, bovine face, the vapid eyes, the red, shiny pimples, the nests of blackheads.” Those three words stuck into me like a burr when I first read them at twelve or thirteen: nests of blackheads. It captured so much about that self-disgust, that monstrosity of being a teenager. It put Carrie in a human body. And that’s the real source of the danger, isn’t it? To have a body is to be vulnerable to someone hacking it apart.
I had major back surgery when I was twenty. After years of screaming at fictional strangers cutting bodies open with knives, it’s amazing how calm I was about the real thing. But modern hospitals are places designed to banish dread. There are always lights on, people around, crisp white linen, the smell of disinfectant. As long as you strategically avert your eyes from the crying families, you might be able to forget that this is the true house of horrors. All the gore is hidden away. It’s like a magic trick. Here, the anaesthetist says to you, breathe in and count backwards from ten. And before you get to eight, you’re asleep, and then you wake up and it’s all over. Ta-da!
Suppressed fears bubble up into horror, though. Surgery is a common horror theme, from great examples like Get Out, Re-Animator and The Skin I Live In, to so-bad-they’re-great examples like Tusk and The Human Centipede.
My surgery wound was on a part of my back that I couldn’t see without looking in a mirror, which I decided never to do. I moved back in with my parents so they could look after me. I spent my days in a haze of painkillers, watching the same season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer over and over again because I couldn’t keep track of what was happening. Every night, I’d stretch out on the couch and my dad would clean my wound for me. He worked hard to keep the disgust off his face. He was so gentle, his huge fingers wiping the crusted pus off the stitches. It was the most real act of love that I remember.
There’s a doorway in Southwark, a few blocks away from London Bridge. It leads up a winding staircase to an old garret. A dusty room filled with old medical instruments, barrels of dried herbs. Exactly the kind of place you would find in a story told in the dark, with a box being passed around a circle of giggling children. But this one’s real, an old hospital and apothecary. It’s a museum now. And right at the back, through even more cramped doorways and musty passages, is something surprising: a wooden amphitheatre, benches arranged in concentric rows around a single wooden operating table. London’s oldest surgical theatre, built in 1822. It’s called the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, and it’s on St Thomas Street, if you ever find yourself in London and have a taste for the macabre.
We don’t often think about this, but operating theatres used to be literally theatres (Greek, theatron, “a place of seeing”). For much of European history, surgeons and doctors were different professions — even today, surgeons traditionally go by “Ms” or “Mr”, not by “Dr”. Doctors were posh, professionalised, and studied their craft at a university. Surgeons belonged to the same guild as barbers. They trained by apprenticeship, which means they trained by looking.
Imagine sitting in a surgical theatre in 1822. There was no anaesthetic. The patient would have been given alcohol or opium to dull the pain, but they’d be awake. Surgeons didn’t know anything about germs back then (the theory about what caused infection was “miasma” in the air), so no instrument would have been disinfected, no hands would have been washed. There’d have been a box of sawdust under the table to soak up blood. Since the rich were operated on in the privacy of their own homes, the person lying on the operating table would have been poor. The chances of them surviving were small. The surgeon’s best chance was to be as quick as possible. Some surgeons could perform an amputation in under a minute. Still, imagine how long that minute must have felt. Imagine the screaming.
I offer you Richard Gordon’s description of Robert Liston performing surgery: “He was six foot two, and operated in a bottle green coat with wellington boots. He sprung across the blood stained boards upon his swooning, sweating, strapped down patient like a duelist, calling, ‘Time me gentlemen, time me!’ to students craning with pocket watches from the iron railinged galleries. Everyone swore that the first flash of his knife was followed so swiftly by the rasp of saw on bone that sight and sound seemed simultaneous. To free both hands, he would clasp the bloody knife between his teeth.”
If you were an apprentice surgeon who needed a slower demonstration, or just disliked the yelling, you could watch a cadaver dissection instead. Problem was, in the United Kingdom in the 1800s, there were limited places one could obtain a cadaver. Most bereaved families wanted a Christian burial for their loved ones, which restricted your options to executed criminals, suicide victims or unclaimed orphans. In other words, impoverished people. This led to an epidemic of body snatching. It got so bad that families started hiring guards for cemeteries and building iron cages over fresh graves (“mortsafes'') to deter the Resurrection Men.
The protagonist of the first great horror novel, Victor Frankenstein, was a body snatcher, an almost-surgeon. “Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?” he says.
By the late-1800s, Europeans had figured out anaesthesia (ether, then chloroform) and muscle relaxants. They’d realised that washing your hands and knives are good, actually. Surgery became just a little less deadly. Instead of Victor Frankenstein and his monstrous science, fiction now offers us Sherlock Holmes, the man who conquers the darkness with rationality. Sherlock Holmes was based on the real anatomist Joseph Bell, the first man to give autopsy evidence in a court of law. Autopsy, from the Greek, autopsia, “I will see for myself”.
When we go to a surgeon now, we like to believe that we’re in a Sherlock Holmes story rather than a slasher film. A brilliant doctor will use modern science to spot the clues and figure out what’s wrong and save us. The mystery will be solved. Wrongs will be set right. The monstrous hound will turn out to be nothing but a big dog after all. That’s what we tell ourselves.
But it’s still lurking there, just beneath the surface: the horror, the horror of all of this.
Dread, the moment before you see the monster; disgust, the moment after. What you don’t want to see; what you wish you could unsee.
“Around 400-million people in the world have diabetes, a chronic blood sugar regulation disorder.” Those were the sanitised words on the informational pamphlet we got from the doctor. But I can tell you the truth: diabetes is parts of your body rotting, until surgeons have to start cutting off pieces of you, bit by bit.
It started with the top of the big toe on his right foot. Just a little slice. Like so many men of his generation, especially South African men proud of being “rough and tough and from the Bluff”, my dad was terrible about going to the doctor when he was sick. I came to visit him one day, and he took off his shoes, and there was a wound on the bottom of his big toe, and it was green. I had to make an appointment to see the doctor when he refused to. The doctor made a face I will never forget, and that was the beginning of my horror story.
He had a heart attack a few months later, the inevitable result of a lifetime of smoking and a diet that consisted solely of red meat (“I do eat vegetables, I just get animals to eat them first”). They needed to take a hunk of vein from his thigh for the bypass. By that point, he’d already had two more toes amputated from his right foot, and the first toe taken off his left. The surgeon told us there were some risks in opening up his thigh, but they were reasonable risks, easily managed. He was so reassuring, with his white coat and antiseptic smell. There was not a spot of blood on him anywhere.
The wound on my dad’s thigh never healed. Neither did the thick cut that twisted across his chest, pierced with ugly black staples like Frankenstein’s monster. Both got infected. The doctor said we should cut off his foot to try to save his calf. Then, that we should cut off his calf to try to save his thigh. They carved him up like Christmas ham, piece by piece.
I remember walking into the E.R. after they took off the last of his leg, and he was blinking slowly, still waking up. He looked smaller, lying in that bed, than I’d ever seen him. I could see the shape of him under the thin blanket, lopsided. He lifted the blanket to show me, and I stumbled back. I just couldn’t look at it. I will never forgive myself for doing that to him.
I was making his medical decisions at that point, because my dad was too out of it to really understand what was going on. I tried asking his doctor if it was worth it, to keep putting him through all of this pain in the hope of — what — a couple more years wasting away in a chair until his heart gave out for good? My dad always said he wanted to spend his retirement exploring the Karoo in a campervan. The doctor couldn’t give me a real answer. Even now, surgical training involves dissections and textbooks, not philosophy. They train surgeons to prolong life, not to offer a good death.
I can’t even tell you the worst parts of it, the gory details of what happens to a body when it takes eighteen months to shut down. The awful things he said to us when he started to lose his mind. You don’t want to know those things. I hope you never have to know. I hope you never have to reach your hand into this particular dark box, and feel what’s inside.
It was easier when he died. It was awful, obviously, but it was over. There was nothing more to dread.
I held it together remarkably well, just like he would have. I was efficient and calm. I made to-do lists. I applied for the death certificate. I got his pension released and his debts paid off and his bank accounts closed. I planned a funeral for 150 people, which feels like planning a wedding in hell, by the way. I wrote Facebook posts, and phoned all the relatives too old to be on Facebook. I wrote a eulogy. I arranged the cremation. I found that I could not cry.
They asked me if I wanted to come see his body one last time before they slid him into the oven. I said no. I did not want to see his body, so mistreated, ever again.
The day after his funeral, my two best friends picked me up. They’re both horror writers too. They get it, this thing that draws us to stare into the dark, so they took me to a theme park.
I only wanted to ride the Golden Loop all afternoon, the biggest rollercoaster they have. The cart shuddered forwards and tipped into the sky, and I squeezed my eyes shut, and I screamed and I screamed and I screamed.