If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood.
If it’s something weird and it don’t look good.
Who you gonna call?
My love of supernatural fiction in film and literature could be traced back to the 80’s supernatural comedy caper, Ghostbusters.
Actually, you could probably trace it further still to fairy tales featuring wizards, witches, goblins, trolls and changelings from my early childhood.
Recently I binge watched the Netflix original series, Stranger Things. It’s an ode to some of the cult classics of the 80s – ET, Stand By Me, The Goonies, the work of directors John Hughes and John Carpenter and horror author Stephen King. You could love it for the nostalgia and soundtrack alone.
There is also a creepy upside down world, a monster, a missing kid and a government conspiracy – all the ingredients of a good, scary, supernatural mystery. The supernatural may not be to everyone’s tastes but to enough people that it’s almost a genre of fiction in it’s own right.
So what is it about this genre that appeals to so many – myself included?
Let’s start with what is the supernatural? It is something attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature.
Elements of the supernatural probably stretch as far back as our existence – we have a knack for explaining the unexplainable using our imaginations.
Where we might first consume the supernatural are through the original fairy tales. These often acted as cautionary tales for their time and have either subtle or overt references to the supernatural = take little red riding hood and the dangers of strangers as an example. There are also tales about newborns being replaced with ugly fairy changelings, cursed spinning wheels, witches living in gingerbread houses, poisoned apples and fairy godmothers.
Literature also celebrates the supernatural from Bram Stokers’ definitive novel on vampire lore – Dracula, to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein – somewhere between zombie and science fiction. There’s the classic ghost story like the Turn of the Screw by Henry James and the haunting poems of Edgar Alan Poe – damn that raven. Stephen King has recently come to own the supernatural horror genre and I can’t forget the vampire queen herself, Anne Rice who wrote Interview with the Vampire among many others.
Films, young adult fiction and television serials in particular seem to have really embraced the supernatural over the last decade.
Supernatural films have always been around, notable titles include the 60s birth of the zombie movie with Night of the Living Dead; the incarnation of the devil with Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby which was closely mirrored by the Devil’s Advocate. Even Quentin Tarantino tried his hand with the almost cheesy vampire flick From Dusk Till Dawn. My favourite is the supernatural comedy – the Kiwis do this well with great movies like Black Sheep and What We Do in the Shadows.
Supernatural themes also saw a rise in young adult fiction with the otherworldly represented and often driving the plots of books like JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, or Stephanie Myer’s Twilight series – read the former but please spare yourself the latter.
We now have entire tv shows dedicated to zombies, vampires, witches, werewolves and faeries. You may have heard of some of them- True Blood, Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries, The Originals, Teen Wolf, Salem, South of Hell, Constantine, The Walking Dead. Zombie Nation. These are a mere handful of what has flooded the market recently.
So what’s the appeal of these things that go bump in the night? What’s the appeal of being, well, scared?
I can’t speak for everyone but there are three things that I could say motivate me to continue watching and reading supernatural fiction:
1. The escapist factor. How better to deal with the real world scaries than distracting yourself with imaginary scaries? Personally, I’d rather take on a cranky poltergeist in my house than an army of Donald Trump. Occasionally when I sit in traffic I think about what my strategy should be were the zombie apocalypse to occur right that very moment. And warding off a vampire is a little more straightforward than a serial killer – at least one of them can’t get into your house without your invitation.
2. Supernatural fiction often allows exploration of elements of humanity that cant otherwise be explored – take for example Stephen King’s The Mist which boils all of humanity down to one convenience store of people caught out by a deadly mist. The entire story is about the dynamic between this group and reflects some of the issues that continue to plague our world today. It especially allows us to entertain the dual concerns we have with mortality and life beyond.
What is it about ghosts that scare us most? Our own mortality, Stephen King would say.
George A Romero has used zombies as a commentary on things like consumerism, racism, globalisation and migration for almost fifty years.
Vampires explore the lustful side of humanity that we are rarely allowed to indulge in – they are the epitome of human vanity – eternal and youthful.
Werewolves are probably the most interesting as they are an exploration of our more animalistic nature – control vs lack of control, a return to beastly instinct.
3. I think what I really love about the supernatural though – is the good storytelling around a supernatural tale. Because if you think about it – it’s really kind of hard to make you believe something that goes against what you know to be true, that goes against your instincts.
Werewolves aren’t running around chaining themselves on full moons, vampires don’t hide in the shadows waiting to drain us of blood and zombies… well, there’s debate about whether technology and consumerism have already turned some of us into them but that’s another topic altogether.
So if a story teller can make me believe in the world they’ve created, if a story teller can get me to invest in their characters – then they have succeeded in their task.
While doubt I’ve convinced anyone to go out and buy a Stephen King novel or bunker down with a zombie television series, I hope I’ve given you an introduction about this interesting and layered genre.