My Life In Horror
Every month, I will write about a film, album, book or event that I consider horror, and that had a warping effect on my young mind. You will discover my definition of what constitutes horror is both eclectic and elastic. Don’t write in. Also, of necessity, much of this will be bullshit – as in, my best recollection of things that happened anywhere from 15 – 40 years ago. Sometimes I will revisit the source material contemporaneously, further compounding the potential bullshit factor. Finally, intimate familiarity with the text is assumed – to put it bluntly, here be gigantic and comprehensive spoilers. Though in the vast majority of cases, I’d recommend doing yourself a favour and checking out the original material first anyway.
This is not history. This is not journalism. This is not a review.
This is my life in horror.
“Insanity Is Healthy”
(Note: the below article was written before the shooting that took place in Plymouth on Thursday 12th August. More qualified commentators than me will speak to the appalling influence of incel 'culture' on some of our young men, and I sincerely hope that journalists will do the job of holding authorities to account for any failure in the way gun licencing laws and vetting were applied. My heart goes out to the victims, the family, and the community, all of whom will be feeling devastated right now. I hope that lessons are learned, changes are made, and further atrocities are prevented.)
It’s April 21st 1999. I’ve been working in the fucking pub for five months. It sucks. I hate pretty much everything about it. Sure, it’s better than Barnstaple. I am, at least, in London. Granted, I can’t afford to do anything more than eat, sleep and work, but… it’s better. It’s alive, in a way Barnie wasn’t. There’s energy.
Still. It sucks, for all the reasons outlined in the previous three essays on the subject, and I am miserable. I’ve been banished to the public bar by this point, away from the hard work of the sports bar, true, but the tradeoff is that I’m serving half a dozen (at most) hardcore alcoholics, and enduring seemingly endless conversations about what they’d like to do to Carol Vorderman, and whatever you’re imagining, I can almost guarantee it’s worse.
Boredom doesn’t even begin to cover it. Things are so bad that, well, how’s his? The brewery/chain that owns the pub made a deal sometime in the new year with The Express “newspaper”, as a result of which, and no doubt in exchange for vastly inflating the purported circulation of said paper, part of my morning job involved placing a copy of that godforsaken rag on every single table in the bar before opening.
And I was so fucking bored that I read it. Cover to cover. Well, okay, no, not the sport, I have my standards.
And this particular day, I read it with far more care and attention than normal.
Because it was the day after the Columbine massacre.
I can’t remember now how I first heard the news. I do remember the state of numbness, of shock. My flatmate and I. She was a few years older, working at a Uni. And, I mean, the bald, core facts are as simple and as dark as they come; two teenage boys murder a bunch of fellow teenagers before turning the guns on themselves. It’s just one of those indigestible things, a happening you can neither unsee nor really reconcile yourself to. Or at least, I couldn’t. Can’t. It feels like a negation. A black pit where reason should be. An impossible horror.
But, of course, I did try to make some kind of sense out of it; alongside the millions of people who saw it on telly, and the thousands of families directly affected, and the circling news crews with hour after hour of airtime to fill, column inches to fill, and literally everybody screaming the same useless question; Why?
Never mind how. Everybody knew how. In 1996, a gunman had walked into a classroom in the UK, shot thirty one children, sixteen fatally, murdered the teacher, and then took his own life. I remember that day, too; the same sick numbness, sitting with my fellow invincible teenagers in the smoking cafeteria at College, totally unable to process. But we knew something would be done, and it was. Within a very small number of months, it was functionally close to impossible to own a handgun of any real deadly power in the UK. And though there have been murders, and the odd shooting, there’s not been this kind of mass killing since.
And, I mean, fuck having the gun control debate again, who the hell am I going to win over, but I think even back then I knew US “culture” was different and gun ownership far more normal, so when I say I knew how, well, that’s what I mean. As soon as it happened, shocking to the core as it was, it also felt… inevitable. Something that should never happen, and yet was absolutely definitely going to happen at some point.
Because of the how.
The answers were not long in coming. A picture was quickly emerging of a deeply toxic environment. Jocks that picked on goths and suspected queers. A bullied underclass of Marilyn Manson fans who sometimes wore black nail varnish, bullied beyond endurance, self describing as The Trenchcoat Mafia, adopting a hateful, mocking nickname as their own.
The headline in The Express from that day was a pull quote from the Trenchcoat Mafia yearbook page (and really, that there was a yearbook page should surely have given some pause as to exactly how out there this group really was): ‘Insanity Is Healthy’.
And, like, I’d seen Heathers, but more importantly, I’d somehow survived secondary school myself, and…
Well, not to repeat myself, but school was a fairly hellish experience for me, for the usual banal reasons; short, over enthusiastic, bright and not good at hiding it, lonely and socially awkward, you know how this tune goes. The music I loved the most - Manson came later, but not too late for me to connect - was full of spit and fury, and I honestly think it was a big part of how I stayed sane, in an environment that felt engineered to try and break me. And I realise how pathetically hyperbolic that may look, on the page, coming from the fingertips of a 40something year old man; but we’ve come way too far for bulshit, now, haven’t we? And I tell you it’s the stone cold truth of how I felt back then. Hell, I still think it’s true. I still think it was. And I’m still pissed off about it.
The point is, sure, by the time Columbine happened I was out of school; hell, out of Devon, entirely, thank fuck; yes, sure, working a shitty job without the slightest clue what happened next, or how, but having faith, expectation, that there was a next, once I learned how to breathe and figured it out. On the other hand, I was still not out, in many important respects. I’d discovered the freedom to be not-a-lot in the place of my choosing, and of course that’s not nothing… but nor is it to be anything approaching whole. The scars were there, and they ran deep, especially when a typical workday involved bullying co-workers who’d periodically threaten violence, indifferent bosses, and regulars who hated me for Existing While Male, Young, and Long Haired. I definitely felt stronger, and more confident… but not actually in any way strong or confident, if you can dig it. The hole had been very, very deep, and though progress was being made, I was a long way from daylight.
And then, this. This story of bullied kids and a bloody, pointless, destructive revenge. Like Rage or Heathers, but real.
I tried to imagine it. Tried to imagine being so overwhelmed by the despair and the fury and the shit that I just.. Gave up. Just decided, fuck it, full nhilist, No Nothing, write my suicide note in the blood of other people and ride out into the black.
And, well, if you’ve come this far, if you’ve read my other essays in this series or spent any length of time with my fiction, you know what I’m going to say next; I found to my crawling horror that I really, really could.
Dig it; I’d had this daydream since I was twelve. And the daydream was blowing up the school.
I knew just how I’d do it, too; break in at night, get to the science block, turn on every bunsen burner gas tap in every lab, close the outside doors, wait for the building to fill with flammable fumes, light fuse, retire to a safe distance… boom! Or the other version; newly minted millionaire Kit Power (millionaire movie star? Oh, probably; back then, acting was still the thing) buys outright the entire school building complex, then has it wired with dynamite and raises it to the ground.
The more astute among you will have already spotted, I hope, the pretty important difference between these daydreams and what happened at Columbine (beyond the fact of them only ever being daydreams, of course, let’s not lose sight of that); though my dreams ran destructive, they never ran homicidal. I wanted to destroy the site of my humiliation, and I wanted that destruction to be a spectacle, a statement… but I didn’t want to hurt anyone, let alone everyone.
Not that I didn’t also have violent fantasies, to be clear. Again, if you’ve read my fiction, you’ll know I have a certain fascination, and maybe flare, for depictions of violence. Of this fact, I am neither proud nor ashamed, but I’m pretty sure I know where it comes from.
I’d rehearse fights. A lot. Almost certainly inspired by Ender’s Game, I’d imagine myself delivering absolutely brutal beatings to particular bulles that had either threatened me or harmed me. The fantasy would always start with them throwing the first punch, me, moving instinctively, avoiding the blow, countering with a fist to the nose, throat, or gut, aiming the punch for several inches behind the target area to ensure my fist was still accelerating when it hit home (we can thank The Ghost for that little bit of dark wisdom), following up immediately with one of the other spots, causing the target to drop, after which a short speech about never, ever fucking with me again, liberally itnterpsersed with kicks to the chest and gut, would complete the scene.
I’d run scenarios like this over and over and over and over. Picturing different settings, different opponents. I’m not going to say it made me feel good, because it didn’t… exactly. But it didn’t not, either. The rationale was preparation, of course; to secure peace is to prepare for war, and all of that shit, and of course bullying wasn’t an abstract threat, so, you know, I came by it honestly in that sense, but still… still…
Ah, hell. It is what it is, and it was what it was. And while none of the fights I got into ended up anywhere near that apocalyptic, I think the exercise did gift me a certain elevated sense of calm when the shit hit the fan; and perhaps more importantly, gave me a certain confidence that couldn’t help but project, a bit. Most bullies don’t want a fight; they want to hand out a beating, and I think the little extra swagger these constant imaginings gave me, earned or not, sent just enough of a signal that this sheep might have some bite after all to see me passed over for a softer target.
So, as I read the coverage in the papers, this story of the bullied kids who snapped, and took their homemade bombs and firearms on a rampage, I felt those two vivid fantasies of my own collide in my head, and felt an awful, soul sickness. Jesus. It could have been me. Just a little less love at home, a little less support, a little less conscience, a little less self belief… if I’d actually believed that school was forever, rather than a jail term my job was to outlast…
Mat and/or Trey of South Park: ‘I remember just thinking, if only I could have told those kids… man, Highschool is a funhouse mirror, it’s the opposite of real life. All those kids making your lives hell, they’ll end up working in their daddy’s garage, it’s the weirdos and freaks who will become the kings of creation…’
And that empathy wrecked me, for weeks afterwards, felt like, especially as the regulars in the bar offered their considered verdict on what had happened (‘they’re just gone! In the ‘ead!’, okay, yeah, cheers for that insight, Otis). Again, to be crystal clear, not out of sorrow for the killers, but out of horror at what they’d done, the hideous abominations they’d felt, wrongly, they’d been pushed to. The idea that the pain could get big enough to obliterate all sense, all reason; that consciousness, life itself, might start to feel like a joke; worse, a trap… and that feeling could lead to the ultimate damnation, destruction and death as a last, desperate bid to scratch your name of the face of the world.
And it wasn’t until decades later that I learned what perhaps you already know; almost everything I knew about Columbine, and the killers, was bullshit.
They weren't bullied. They weren't goths. They weren't Marilyn Manson fans. They didn’t snap - they’d planned the massacre for months. Columbine itself was not some Heathers style dystopia - at least, no more than any high school is. Dylan was a kid with deep seated psychological problems, impressionable, unable to regulate his emotions, prone to depression, but not bullied, nor unloved or abused. And Eric was a one-in-a-million psychopath - a kid Dave Cullen, journalist, in his excellent book about the truth of what happened that day, describes as ‘like studying a virus’ - someone impossible to relate to or empathise with, so alien was his interior.
Shock fucking horror, the press had lied to me - to us. Again.
To themselves, too? Oh, hell, probably, in some cases - though, given what their job is supposed to be, ask me if I give a shit. The point is, I - we - were sold a bill of goods that was completely false, and, speaking personally, I went through a wholly unnecessary bout of self doubt and loathing as a result, agonising over what now seem, at the blessed distance of a couple of decades, as nothing more or less than the utterly banal, typical thought processes of a bullied teen.
And, yeah, sure, boo fucking hoo me, people actually fucking died. True. But, also true; we were all collectively gaslit in an absolutely gigantic way by people whose actual job it was to know and do better. And, check it; I am nothing approaching unique or special, especially as regard my experiences as a school child of the 90s. I strongly suspect many, many young people put themselves through the kind of mill I did; tried to process not only the trauma of the fact of what happened, but also a sickening sense of culpability, complicity, there but for the grace of… well, whoever.
Like most of us, I suspect, I've got enough guilt I earned honestly to work through. I didn’t fucking need this, and if you’re nodding along as you read this, neither did you.
In fiction, we don‘t have to tell the truth about monsters. We can, of course. Or, we can try to; try and reach across the empathy chasm, see inside the heart of the heartless, the mind of the mindless. Sure, we can. I think we’ll almost always fail; I think we’ll inevitably take too much of our own minds and hearts with us, and that what we come out with, whilst valuable, and ‘entertaining’ (for a given value of etc) will bear as much relation to the reality as… well, as a portrait of a person does to a virus. But, try or not, it’s fundamentally not our job, I don’t think.
Journalists, on the other hand? Yeah. Yeah, I think it is their fucking job. And with a few honorable exceptions, it’s a job they're failing at. Miserably. It hurt me then, in 1999, and here and now, in 2021, it’s fucking killing us.
The Columbine massacre is a scar on the minds of everyone who lived through it, whether in person, or vicariously via the global coverage. It’s trauma.
The lies we were told about that day, and the way those lies have perpetuated, normalised, become history in the minds of so, so many… that piles obscenity upon obscenity, degradation upon tragedy. It victimises the dead all over again, and by telling us a false story of what happened, stereotypes are perpetuated, misunderstandings are repeated as fact, and, as the wrong lessons are learned, further such killings gain a sick inevitability.
It’s 2021. The planet is burning. 71% of global carbon emissions are made by just 100 companies.
And the papers are telling you that paper straws and electric cars are the only solution, and if you don’t buy them, it’s you that’s killing the planet. Or, at least, us. Not them.
What do these stories have in common? The refusal of those with the platform, and the responsibility, the fucking obligation, to accurately name the problem. Whether through distaste, vested interest, or investment in the false narrative we’ve built for centuries around the power of individual action (but never collective action, god forbid The Baying Mob ever manifest) to somehow resist the awesome forces of human-shaped viruses with effectively limitless resources, we are fed a line of plausible sounding, emotionally resonant bullshit. And, because we care, because of our empathy, we absorb it, we internalise it, and we try to reckon with the distorted image these false stories give us of ourselves.
It’s 2021. The planet is burning. We need better stories. Truer stories. And people with the courage to write those stories, in the face of all the social and financial incentives that push towards the status quo.
Good luck to us all.
Dedicated with respect and affection to the memory of Dawn Foster - A Real One who Got It. May she inspire us all to Do Better and Be Better.
My Life In Horror Volume One: