By Gary Kimsey
In 1972, I waited hours on a blustery afternoon to vote in the presidential election. Hundreds of people were ahead of me on the tree-lined sidewalk. As the dead leaves of fall swirled around us, most people grumbled about the long, cold wait.
By contrast, I was immersed in a novel about horror, and even now, 45 years later, I remember the tingling of my imagination from fearful words and suspenseful images.
I was taking a college class on the literature of horror. We studied Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft’s works, and, among others, Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow. This was before Stephen King’s time, or I’m sure he would have been on the reading list.
The current reading assignment: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Most people have seen Dracula movies, but few have read the novel. Take my word, the novel is scarier.
A gloomy night had fallen by the time I voted and walked home, frequently glancing back to see if vampires followed. My old house had huge windows with nothing to view outside but darkness. Wait just a Frankenstein moment, did I just see evil red eyes glaring through the black night?
I rushed to close the curtains. I switched on every light and situated myself in a corner chair where no vampire could approach unseen. I read on. I didn’t sleep that night. I was too jittery of things that might go bump.
Richard Nixon won the election. On went the Watergate scandal, dirty tricks, threats, lies, and nasty pronouncements. News commentators observed, “This is like a horror story.”
I thought about it. Yes, indeedy, Nixon’s actions exhibited all the elements of literary horror that I studied in my class.
Decades passed. I forgot all about similarities between a crooked president and literary horror—that is, until I saw Donald Trump’s attack on Myeshia Johnson, pregnant Gold Star widow of La David Johnson. Trump’s shameful actions were horrific in their own right, but the issue brought back memories of how a president’s tactics can reflect the elements of literary horror.
Five elements exist. Here is how each relates to the current president’s recent antics—please note that each example is just one of many that I could cite.
Dracula vs. Trump: What do you think? Take a short poll at the end of this article.
One horror element is foreshadowing, the strategic placement of scary tidbits that alert the reader that something bad will come. A recent Trumpian tidbit was dribbled about when the president told the media that his meeting with military leaders was “the calm before the storm.” Nobody knew then or even now what he was talking about. Yet, people began worrying. It could be, of course, that he was merely talking to hear himself talk, yet once again.
Fear is a critical element. As horror literary expert Amanda Headlee points out, fear is used to scare the “ever livin’ giblets” out of us. Trump leverages fear by demonizing Muslims, Blacks, Congress, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and, among others, the media. The result: Many Americans have gained an uncalled-for fear of those groups and persons.
Another horror element—suspense—keeps us worrying about monsters under the bed. Trump is a master of monsters. Remember his threat to “reign fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea, a chilling statement that evoked the horror of a nuclear exchange? Since then, we’ve heard more of his threats—verbal slashes that some people worry could bring about World War III.
Mystery is a horror element that keeps us wondering if what we know is really true. In Trump’s case, consider health care. At some moments during the long Trump/congressional healthcare debacle, we thought we understood what was going on but then realized time and again that we knew nothing. Everything was a mystery that created unnecessary suspense and fear in many Americans.
Trump is a user of the most impactful element of horror: Imagination. As horror writer C.M. Humphries explains, “The cool thing about horror…is that you can toy with someone’s imagination. You paint a picture in such a way that the reader’s mind can become lost in thought the same way we might think there’s a ghost in the house during the thirteenth hour.”
As a way to inflame our collective imagination, Trump concocts wild, brash, scary statements—like the “fire and fury” and “calm before the storm” threats—and then leaves it up to the imagination of Americans and the entire world to conjure up terrifying visions.
The Dracula novel, which I’ve re-read now and then since that night of the ’72 election, uses horror elements to move the story forward. Count Dracula is a monster who does monstrous things. It’s something he cannot help; evil is his primal nature. By the novel’s conclusion, when he is killed by a band of fearless companions led by Dr. Van Helsing, Dracula has almost become a pitiful character because it’s clear he had no choice over the horror he committed.
On the other hand, Trump is supposedly a human and therefore should be able to make decisions between right and wrong, and good and evil. Why does he use elements of horror? It is not to move our nation, our lives, forward.
He often uses horror elements to divert the public’s attention from issues that are damaging to him—the Trump-Russia Investigation, for example. Sometimes he solely uses elements like fear and mystery to draw attention to himself as the savior—the Dr. Van Helsing—that he so incorrectly perceives himself to be. And frequently, as we’ve seen in his Twitter attacks, Trump relies on elements of horror because, I suspect, he has a mean-spirited nature.
Americans don’t deserve a president who spends time scaring the “ever livin’ giblets” out of us. Unfortunately, what we have in the White House is an author writing his own personal horror novel which the rest of us are forced to endure. Rather than close curtains to keep him out, it’s time for Americans to grasp the metaphorical stake and blazing torch, and chase him out of the village.
Learn more about literary horror:
Core Elements of a Horror Story by Amanda Headlee.
5 Elements of a Good Horror Story by C.M. Humphries.