Horror Fiction as a Metaphor for Real Issues
Updated: Jul 25
I recently wrote a story about a vampire - only, the story wasn't really about a vampire at all. Using horror as a metaphor for real issues is a powerful tool to explore and address the problems that exist in the real world.
Horror delves into the depths of our personal and collective fears and sheds light on bigger societal and psychological themes. It can also be a great way to talk about difficult subjects and a point of catharsis for writers and readers alike.
Here are a few reasons why we might write horror to work through our own problems:
Fear of the Unknown
Horror preys upon the fear of the unknown and the mysterious forces lurking in the shadows. This fear can symbolise broader worries we have about the uncertainties of life, like the fear of change or the anxiety surrounding unfamiliar cultures, technologies or ideologies.
When we confront and explore these fears through horror stories, we can find insights into our fear-driven responses and begin to understand why we react to certain things in the ways that we do. I think that this helps us to understand ourselves a little better.
Supernatural Entities as Metaphors
Monsters, ghosts, vampires, and other supernatural beings in horror fiction can serve as metaphors for real-life threats or societal issues. They can also embody our collective anxieties, representing deep-rooted fears such as mortality, loss, addiction, or the darkness within human nature (I'm sure we've all got a wicked streak in there somewhere!).
But through symbolic supernatural creatures, we can examine our own struggles and challenges. Here are some examples of what I mean:
Inner Demons: Supernatural creatures can represent our internal struggles, fears, flaws, repressed emotions, trauma, or destructive tendencies. When we personify our inner demons, we can look closely at the psychological and emotional complexities of our own character.
Symbolising Evil or Corruption: Demons, monsters and malevolent spirits often represent the presence of evil or corruption in the real world, like societal issues, oppressive systems, or the darker aspects of human nature. Horror fiction gives us a platform to critique and challenge real-world injustices or explore the consequences of unchecked power.
Exploration of Otherness: Vampires, werewolves and aliens can serve as metaphors for otherness or marginalised identities. These entities may symbolise the experiences of outsiders, individuals who feel alienated or different from the societal norms.. Through these types of metaphors, we can explore themes of acceptance, discrimination and the search for belonging.
The Human Condition: We all have desires, fears, regrets and aspirations, and we can use the supernatural to represent these inner feelings. Take ghosts, who can embody our unresolved regrets; or shapeshifters, who can symbolise the fluidity of identity.
How many times have you seen the news or heard someone talking about a societal injustice and you've felt so incredibly angry, but had no outlet for that anger? Writing horror can actually give us an platform to comment on the things that happen around us.
Although horror media can be thrilling and pumps us full of adrenaline, it can also expose bigger themes of injustice and oppression, discrimination and ethical dilemmas, and of course abuses of power. Writing about these things can also be beneficial to readers, prompting them to reflect on their own roles and responsibilities in addressing social challenges.
Horror often delves into the depths of the human mind, weeding out our deepest, darkest fears, our traumas, and our psychological vulnerabilities. Through horror we can metaphorically address mental health issues and explore the fragility of the human psyche.
What I love about well-written horror is that it makes me empathise with characters at the same time as terrifies me. It teaches me to appreciate that fight-for-survival spirit and makes me think hard about my own fears and how I'd react in a similar situation.
I keep thinking about that movie by M. Night Shyamalan, The Happening. God that was heavy-handed and awful. But one thing it tried to do was explore ecological and environmental issues through the lens of horror. Essentially, scare us into taking better care of our world and not take nature for granted.
Good horror can reflect our fears and anxieties about the destruction of our natural world and draw attention to the consequences of our actions.
Horror is often used to critique cultural norms, societal expectations and oppressive systems. It exposes the very real horrors of prejudice and conformity, or the suppression of individuality and personal freedom. Challenging these things is so important and it's equally important to examine cultural ideologies - especially if they don't sit well with us.
Essentially, ghosts and monsters are symbols for real fears and experiences like trauma or grief or societal issues. When we engage with these symbolic narratives we can gain insights into our own emotions and the human condition.
Empowerment and Resilience
Most of the time we want the protagonist to face terrifying challenges and hurdles and ultimately triumph over evil... that is, unless the protagonist is annoying as heck. Then we might want them to just get eaten.
But a great protagonist can inspire us and make us feel empowerment and resilience, teaching us that we all have the capacity to confront and overcome our own fears. When we witness someone else triumph, it makes us want to be courageous and find our own wells of inner strength.
Empathy and Identification
This calls back to wanting the protagonist to survive and triumph over adversity. If we can empathise with characters, we put ourselves in their shoes and experience their emotions vicariously. This emotional connection can create a sense of validation and shared experience.
Horror fiction is like as a mirror that reflects our fears and anxieties back at us. But it also allows us to confront those fears and anxieties, and maybe even deal with them.
If you have any thoughts or comments about this post please do drop them below. Thanks for reading!