Horror and the Supernatural:
An Interview with Evert van Leeuwen
What is it about horror and the supernatural that interests you so much?
“I think I’m interested in horror, and specifi cally supernatural horror, because it’s the kind of stuff that generally can not happen in real life. My fascination lies in using storytelling, whether it’s literature, television, or fi lm, as a vehicle for thinking about things that would not actually happen. I think that is one of the great benefits of storytelling, that you can think up anything in your imagination. You can imagine positive things you want to do, like flying or coming back from the dead, or negative things, to give shape to things that frighten you, such as monsters.”
Do you have a favourite work of supernatural horror fiction?
“Ah that’s difficult, because it changes every week. I am currently reading The Dead Zone by Stephen King with MA students, which has been one of my favourite books for a long time. One of my favourite books period, not even supernatural or horror specifically. I like the type of supernatural it uses. It’s a book about a man who has an accident when he’s really young and apparently becomes psychic. It uses parapsychological discourse and the idea of being able to see the future or having intuitive feelings. It’s a novel in which Stephen King uses a kind of horror story of a man who slowly turns into an assassin. You never know if this man is really psychic or if this is just an aspect of his personality that is crumbling as he is becoming a fanatic. It’s the kind of story I’m also interested in in my research: the idea of how writers employ the supernatural not just to entertain, but also as a vehicle of exploring things that are directly relevant to social and political themes. I also like it because it has a sustained melancholy mood to it. It’s 500 pages of this young melancholy man who ends up in a very diffi cult situation and for the most of the book you really feel for him. It’s only after the last 50 pages that suddenly King makes you worry whether he’s gone mad or not. That’s the shock moment in the book. The shock is that there is no monster, but you’ve been following a man slowly turning into a monster.”
Do you see a difference in the role of the supernatural in contemporary literature versus older literature? “I think so, especially in contemporary popular culture. A great deal of nineteenth century supernatural fiction was written and read by people living in a culture in which the existence of the supernatural wasn’t rejected by the mainstream. Many people would have still had a much closer affinity with the idea of life after death and spirits. It wouldn’t have been as countercultural as it is now. If you now think of psychics or people who believe in these kind of things, they are either devout Christians who follow Christian beliefs or they fit into this new age ‘hippie’ bracket. They turn to that kind of discourse as an act of dissidence towards the mainstream. I think now that scientific rationalism has become so dominant, supernatural fiction has become much more understood as a form of mass market entertainment. It’s about the shock effect and about how outrageous you can be.”
People tend to start believing myths and legends are real. Why do you think this is?
“Well, from a more dry scholarly position, a myth is a particular story of fantasy that functions within a culture to explain why things are the way they are. Classical myths in Greek and Roman culture were not just entertaining stories that people passed time with, but they also functioned to explain why a man is a man and why we die for example. They serve to explain things that are inexplicable via other means. Now we have science which is very dominant in explaining how things work, but there are still aspects of people’s lives that remain inexplicable. I think people still have a popular kind of need or desire to believe in those things because it allows you to come to an understanding of why things happen to you. People still have a desire to believe that things have a purpose, and that things happen for a reason. It gives structure, meaning and purpose to people’s lives, even though it’s a scientific kind of structure.”
Do you believe myths and legends are important in the shaping of a culture?
“I think they are, yeah. A lot of studies of historical myths and legends have shown that they are very important as the basis of a particular social structure. In contemporary scholarship, the word myth has been employed to write about stories of gods and demons and other kinds of supernatural figures. But the word is now also often employed to think about aspects of everyday culture that people take for granted. There are myths about feminity and myths about masculinity for example, or there are certain myths about what you conceive to be normal. Within a culture, you have ways of explaining why people behave in a certain way, or why our country is structured in a particular way, and those are now often described by cultural scholars as myths. Something becomes ideological; it tries to present something that isn’t natural as natural, as the only way to be. The more traditional way of talking about myths and legends as fictional stories about supernatural beings is closely aligned to that. People tell each other stories to make sense of and give structure to their world.”
Stories like Frankenstein and Dracula have had many movie adaptations. How do you feel about those adaptations?
“Frankenstein is often described as a modern myth. One of the reasons why I think Frankenstein keeps being reimagined is that it expresses the constant fear between on the one hand science, and on the other hand the lack of knowledge and control that people have over their lives. It’s a story about the relationship between science and society, or the scientist and what he produces. The more dominant science and scientists become, the more people start to think about how scientific discoveries may impact their lives. A lot of the adaptations are great fun, but most of them are not very faithful to the actual novel. In the novel you are supposed to sympathize with the monster, while it is Victor who almost becomes an antagonist. In the film, the monster often simply takes the position of a scary, destructive presence and a lot of the nuances of the original story are lost, I think. Most adaptations are just sensational.”
Would you say myths and legends are more powerful and believable in literature, as it gives the readers the opportunity to shape the image themselves?
“I think I would agree with that. It goes back to eighteenth-century aesthetics and someone like Edmund Burke, who was thinking about the sublime, an important aesthetic category for horror and the supernatural. The sublime is simultaneously fear-inducing and gascinatin, attractive. Burke said that language is so much more capable of creating sublime images because language is a medium capable of creating more obscure and vague images than painting for instance. Of course you can create a very obscure canvas, but you can use language to create paradoxes and things that really cannot be. That is difficult in a painting, because once you’ve represented something in a painting, there it is. It can be, because you can see it. With language, you can really manipulate the viewer’s imagination by describing something in quite a lot of detail, while eventually all the details don’t construct an image at all, but just something incomprehensible. Literature has the potential to make the supernatural more believable, because you are not forced to visualize it.”
To finish, do you have any recommendations which are not the classics?
“One author I would advise anyone to read, especially in the context of supernatural horror, is Algernon Blackwood. He was very popular in the early 20th century and is in my opinion the best writer of mythical horror and supernatural stories that clearly revolve around more traditional notions of myth and legend. He wrote stories about characters entering into a culture that they do not know and as a consequence scary things start happening to them. They have absolutely no idea of explaining what’s going on, making it even more frightening. There is a clash between the perspective of the protagonists, from within their particular culture, and the traditions, legends, and myths that originate in another culture. What is incomprehensible and scary to the often English protagonists, may not be scary at all within the local culture they are visiting. So Blackwood plays a lot on this idea of supernatural stories as myths that allow a culture to explain why it is the way it is and the way it functions. At the same time, an outside could see them just as superstitions. That could be the danger. Are such tales merely superstitions, ignorant folk tales, or are they true...?”
by Linda Boutellier