An American Horror Story
Mary M. Doyle Roche
Election night, November 8, 2016, sets the stage for the seventh season’s first episode of American Horror Story, a cable television program that has featured plenty of spine-tingling suspense, gore, and the supernatural. The reference to the real horrors unfolding in our political landscape was entertaining until it brought home the feeling that watching the evening news is actually scarier than tuning into AHS. September 2017 also brought the release of the remake of IT, a movie based on the book by one of the masters of scary storytelling, Stephen King. IT quickly became the top-grossing R-rated horror film of all time. IT’s Pennywise, the child-eating, otherworldly clown that emerges from the sewers, is terrifying indeed. But what makes IT truly chilling are the non-supernatural horrors that the main characters, all children, face in their lives at home and at school: bullying, sexual abuse at the hands of a parent, grief over the loss of a sibling.
Horror sells. The Hollywood film industry capitalizes on the knowledge that viewers will pay good money to be scared out of their seats. People are drawn to a tale of terror. Perhaps stories written by the likes of King and Rowling give us a way to deal with what scares us. They provide a narrative of hope that evil will be conquered in the end, even (and perhaps especially) by the courageous actions of children.
I had to close my eyes a couple of times during IT. Lately, it seems that I regularly watch the news through the spaces between my fingers, hands over eyes. Apart from the occasional human-interest story, the news leaves me edgy and anxious, with the feeling that things are spinning out of control and that there is nothing I can do about it. The information is often not meant to be empowering, rather it is intended to leave me mired in fears: some real and urgent and some distorted at best, manufactured at worst.
Horror stories are unfolding before our eyes and in our communities: devastation wrought by storms, fires, floods, and earthquakes, exacerbated by the ensuing suffering resulting from delayed or misguided responses. These dangers are real horrors that demand an immediate heroic response on the part of many, as well as committed solidarity and steadfast generosity on the part of many, many more. And they require the courage to move forward in constructive ways that honor and respect the complex interdependence between human communities and their natural environments.
Other horrors have many on the edge of our seats wondering if there will be healthcare when illness strikes; if our families are safe or whether they will be separated by deportation and travel bans; if our systems of justice (and religious communities) will be able to stand up to or be complicit in racial injustice, gender and sexual violence, and many other forms of discrimination. Again, the dangers are very real. But President Trump tweets and tells us not to worry about global warming and pollution, hate speech, or about deteriorating international relationships. Instead we are to feel threatened by legitimate protest, by the desire for freedom and a livelihood on the part of those who immigrate to the U.S., by science and facts, by challenges to the capitalist logic that shapes “our way of life.” The tweets incite us to an irrational fear of each other.
Courage is the virtue that helps us move forward in spite of, or rather in the midst of our fear. Courage keeps us from becoming paralyzed on our moral journey. Courage, guided by prudence, knows when, how, and with whom to confront fear. It also helps us know when it’s time to be afraid and to discern the difference between irrational fear and fear that is real and reasonable. Courage helps us to resist incitement to fear and/or blame. Courage helps us to act both in moments of urgency and in proactive ways over the long haul to mitigate danger. Courage is acquired in communities of solidarity where its practice does not depend on power and violence but on commitments to care with and for those with whom we journey beyond fear to freedom and peace.
We need information to participate in and contribute to the common good. We also need good judgement about consuming information and the constant flow of social media. Even this practice requires courage and community. I think I’ll skip the popcorn.