Johnny Worthen is a lifetime student of the occult and supernatural. Raised in a secluded suburb of Salt Lake City, he gravitated to the more obscure paths of spiritual knowledge. He is a Freemason, twice Past Master of his Lodge, youngest ever at the time. Johnny received a Bachelor’s Degree in English with a Latin minor before earning a Master’s Degree in American Studies from the University of Utah. He lived a year in Denmark and a decade in Oregon until the rain drove him back to the dry high deserts of Utah. He married his junior-prom date and together they have two sons. After many varied and interesting careers, Johnny writes full time now. His debut novel, BEATRYSEL, is available now on Amazon, published by Omnium Gatherum. You can find and follow him on his website, on Twitter as @JohnnyWorthen, on Facebook and on GoodReads.
by Johnny Worthen
You do not need to leave this world to find horror. One glance at evening news and any writer will have plenty of inspiration to chill an audience. Terrorism, war, environmental collapse, train derailments, pandemics, the quiet man down the lane — these things are real and chilling and have within them the nucleus for horror and the seeds for a dramatic exploration of terror.
But they’re not my favorite.
I prefer my things that go bump in the night to have more foreign addresses. Perhaps it’s a comment on my actual cowardice that I prefer to have supernatural agents in my thrillers than knife-wielding psychopaths. When it’s all over and I’m crawling back under the sheets, I can more easily console myself that it’s not real.
Then again, maybe I can’t.
You see I’m one of those people who hasn’t dismissed the possibilities of supernatural agents. So while one side of my brain tries to find solace in thinking it’s all made up, another side of me is more terrified than ever at the thought of greater peril, because where a killer can only take your life, a demon can take your soul besides. I may be a coward, but at least I’m a masochist.
But the supernatural is a hard sell. It’s not easy to have ghosts and devils in modern fiction. As an advanced society, such things just aren’t in our everyday.
The way around it is to use existing doctrine or make your own. If you’re a world builder, like H.P. Lovecraft, go at it. Another way is to use established structures and cults. Think The Exorcist for verisimilitude in supernatural horror.
When I wrote my novel Beatrysel, I looked to modern occult philosophy to find a door to the unseen. Needless to say, I found a few. However, since most people aren’t versed in Theurgy and acolytes of Aleister Crowley, it required a bit of back story and explanation, so a bit of world-building after all. The result though was a magickal universe full of unseen possibilities and powers.
If it’s done properly, as I hope I have done, a structure of supernatural reality can be erected upon a framework of everyday life. The result is a fertile plane of spiritual and psychological dread upon which to plant the seeds of deep horror.
I say psychological because that flavor of horror is close cousin if not the younger brother of the supernatural thriller. There is always an underlying suggestion of madness in supernatural stories. Can we be sure we saw that ghostly figure in the hall? Can others hear those chains and moans at night, or just us and our protagonist agent?
Even the hardest skeptic can still imagine the horror of someone faced with inexplicable events that defy belief and logic. In cases like these, the terror is heightened by the simple idea that disbelief in what is happening is no shield against it.
It could all be just madness, “a bit of undigested pork,” but so what? What is the difference between a nightmare and a demon? One man’s madness is another man’s possession. The only difference as far as a horror narrative goes, is how long the victim might suffer, how great the stakes.
There’s a line I wrote in my book BEATRYSEL: “How dead do you think a demon could make you? In the ground dead? Or forever, forever dead? I didn’t want to know.”
This is the crux of supernatural horror. The stakes are higher, the powers greater, the challenge elevated to a sacred quest: man versus the gods, or at least, their duly authorized representatives.
If it’s presented well, if the story manages to touch those dark and ancient centers in our brains that still house race memories of gods and devils, angels, sprits, ghosts and demons, then the chill will be deep and lasting, primordial and sacred. Nothing else is quite like it.
But at least when it’s all over you can relax because it’s all superstition and folklore.
Then again, maybe you can’t.