Why doesn’t technology feature more in horror?

By Ian Simpson

Posted on April 10, 2014 in Books, Film with tags Horror, Science Fiction, Technology

We all fear something; the dark, spiders, snakes, loneliness, flying, public speaking, heights, drowning, dying. Fiction reflects our lives and horror fiction reflects our fears. It’s hardly a surprise that horror fiction (and its cousin, horror films) is so popular. Like it or not, most of us are drawn towards what scares us.

Science and technology are amongst the things that most frighten people. There are issues of understanding and trust.  The word ‘theory’ is the classic example. In science, theory doesn’t mean idea, but a tested and proven explanation. People don’t trust the science behind climate change, for example. Debates rage about medicines and healthcare. People worry about online hacking and identity theft. People are scared that planes might fall out of the sky and that video games are ruining the minds of children. And yet, as a species, we’ve embraced science and technology wholly: with smartphones and computerised cars, tablets and TVs. Every day, technology (based upon science) seeps into our lives, and every day we discover some new aspect of modern technology to worry about.

And yet fictional horror remains resolutely old-school. We’re talking about ghosts, vampires, werewolves, zombies, demons, and if we’re looking at non-supernatural horror we can include the serial-killer and the psychopath amongst others. Most lists which describe the best horror novels of all time represent these monsters and other ghouls. Rarely do they touch on a technological horror. Mainstream media – the rolling news channels and newspapers – fuel the debate and feed our fears about science and technology. Horror fiction, however, feeds on different, perhaps more primal, fears. Horror does not. Or, at least, that which we would label as horror.

Why is it that modern horror fiction doesn’t seem to reflect this very real fear of technology? Two of the horror novels I read in 2013 were Haunted by William Hussey and NOS4R2 by Joe Hill. Ghosts and the supernatural. The latter was proper old-school horror fiction, preying on childhood fears, and some adult ones too. Many people claim that Steven King is the master of horror fiction, and The Stand often features in lists of best horror fiction. It stands as one of my favourite King books too, yet I wouldn’t call it horror. It is more of a science-fiction, end-of-the-world story. And that seems to be the problem. If it’s ghosts, it’s horror. But when technology is part of the story, it becomes something other than horror. It becomes science fiction.

Zombie fiction in particular suffers from this, shall I say, disease. When zombies are of supernatural origin, such as in George Romero’s classic film Night of the Living Dead (1968) and its sequels, the emphasis is very much on the horror of the situation. People suffer and die and there is gore and fear and, well, proper scenes of horror. This fiction is designed to chill. However, sometimes the zombies result from science or from viruses, as in Patient Zero by Jonathan Mayberry or Feed by Mira Grant (one of my all time favourite pieces of zombie fiction). In these, the emphasis appears to be on the science and not on the horror. Indeed, while Feed is a story of survival, the narrative is driven by internet-technology, and it is the surviving humans that carry out the most horrific acts.

Science fiction, unlike horror, can serve to warn the reader about society’s future, and maybe in some cases, its past. It extrapolates from science and society and shows what might go wrong. While they might not be horror in the sense that there aren’t zombies and monsters, there is plenty to be fearful of in 1984 and Brave New World.

This is not to say that science/technology and horror are always so clearly divorced. One area when science and technology does creep into horror is at the dawn of new scientific discoveries or with regular, seemingly daily, technological advances. As the pace of progress quickens, more and more fiction explores the horror of technology. When computers, virtual reality and the internet first appeared, a lot of fiction (and films) concentrated on explored the new concerns about technology and identity. While not strictly horror, the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer ‘I, Robot… You, Jane’ raised issues on the internet, online dating and identity. William Gibson’s Neuromancer examines our relationships with computers. While it might be labelled cyberpunk, Gibson describes a scary world! One of my all time favourite books is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This was written at the birth of modern science and also the widespread take up of electricity. Victor Frankenstein creates a monster using electricity (although the workings and method are only loosely described) who commits terrible acts of horror. In the end, however, I understand the warnings about science but I also sympathise with the creation. And yet, I find myself classifying Frankenstein not a work of horror fiction, but a work of science fiction. Why?

Most horror is focused on characters losing either their humanity or their life. We can control science and technology, up to a point. And perhaps that is why they have very limited representation in horror fiction, only surfacing when a new technology becomes mainstream. As people become comfortable with the new technology, they become less fearful, and horror is no longer the right place for debate. And yet, we can’t control our own mortality, nor our basic fear of the unknown. The technology changes, but the horror stays the same.

For more from Ian, he can be found @ianjsimpson, The Forgotten Geek and Geek Syndicate.


2 comments on “Why doesn’t technology feature more in horror?”

  • Caleb Woodbridge says:

    Mmmm…. interesting stuff Ian! I think it partly comes down to horror playing on the fear of the irrational. Technology is understandable, so even if it runs amok (as it often does in sf), it doesn’t have the same frisson as supernatural horrors.

    In horror, using the supernatural can challenge our understanding of the universe as comprehensible and controllable by science. Or it can be used to suggest that if the supernatural exists, the universe is not controlled by a benign deity but by cruel and incomprehensible forces. The supernatural can perhaps more directly tap into those primal fears of the unknown, though there’s plenty of scope for that to overlap with science fiction.

  • Ian Simpson says:

    Thanks Caleb,

    Good points too. I think horror fiction is inexorably linked to our mortality and fear of death. As you say, primal fears. You can overcome tech but you can’t overcome death.

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