‘I know a woman who keeps a coffin in the front room. Her boyfriend made it’
Ordained priest and horror fan Peter Laws on why humans are morbidly attracted to the creepy, kooky and downright repellent and need safe outlets to explore it
Peter Laws: 'We tell stories of violence and brutality not to promote aggression, but to find safe ways of dealing with that which frightens and disturbs us.'
I know a woman who keeps her coffin in her front room. Her boyfriend made it. I’ve seen photos of him lovingly planing the wood before presenting it to her as a gift. It now sits in her lounge, ready for the day she dies, and she doesn’t see it as a threat. She loves it. The lid is open and a mannequin stands inside, wearing a black dress, while a stuffed raven sits perched on top.
When I told her that having a coffin in the lounge was, how can I put it, kinda odd, she just laughed and said it’s the rest of us who are truly strange. ‘We’re all going to die,’ she told me. ‘Facing that, is the most natural thing you can do.’
If you think this lady is morbid, just wait till you hear who else I’ve met over the last 18 months. During the research for my new book The Frighteners I’ve hung out with real-life “vampires” who drink actual blood, barristers who devote their life to searching for ghosts and young mums who save their money to buy strands of hair from the world’s most savage serial killers. I’ve crept through the underground crypts of Rome and I’ve back stage tours of the funeral homes of Hertfordshire; I’ve hunted werewolves in Hull and been chased by zombies through a nuclear bunker in Essex. At one point, the BBC even strapped me to an electric chair and threw spiders on me; this was after being blind-driven to a remote mansion which was staffed by a witch and a one-eyed butler. It’s all been part of a quest to understand why human beings are attracted to the creepy, kooky and downright repellent.
And millions of us are. Just look at the movies we watch and the novels we read, the videogames we play and the art we cherish. We have a surprisingly consistent desire to think about the demise of ourselves, and more often, others. Even soap operas, the news, Disney movies and supposedly “cosy” Agatha Christie crime dramas, all regularly orbit around the themes of despair, loss and death.
When a disaster strikes, do we all look away for decency’s sake? Hardly. When the plane crashes or the tsunami strikes, those present have a compulsion to raise their smartphones and capture the carnage on film. Later, the footage fills the screens of the world, watched by those who are both horrified, and yet can’t seem to hold back from looking.
We tell stories of violence and brutality not to promote aggression, but to find safe ways of dealing with that which frightens and disturbs us
Understanding our morbid streak is a quest I began one night on the snowy streets of a Transylvanian village. I was suddenly surrounded by a pack of wild dogs who didn’t attack. They just padded a circle of holes around me in the snow. I stood frozen, as wolves howled in the hills and it was spooky and scary, but do you know what else it was? It was amazing.
You see I’ve loved freaky, frightening things for as long as I can remember. Mystery, spookiness, and stories of death and destruction have such high stakes, they grab my imagination. Talk to me about football and my eyes glaze over. Tell me that your house is haunted, however… and I’m yours for the rest of the night.
I’ve been a fan of horror, ghosts, and all things creepy my entire life. Which makes it slightly awkward when I also explain that I’m an ordained church minister, too. That feels odd. I get that. Like a Reverend should be a “professional nice person”. Yet I’ll happily blow heads off in a videogame and be the first person in the supermarket, when the novelty-fang aisle opens on Halloween.
I’m also the creator of the thoroughly macabre series of crime novels, Purged and Unleashed. Both featuring the atheist ex-vicar Matt Hunter on the trail of religiously fuelled killers. These books pull zero punches when it comes to frights and violence and yet, people keep buying them.
So, what’s going on…and I don’t just mean with me, but perhaps with you too,
and the millions of other nice, everyday folk who wouldn’t dream of killing anybody and yet they play games, read books and generally get a kick out of horrible things. My answer is The Frighteners: Why We Love Monsters, Ghosts, Death and Gore. Part memoir, part travelogue, part pop-psychology, it’s makes the case that human beings have been (and I suspect always will be) morbid thinking creatures who need safe outlets to explore it.
For example, when in late 2001, some of the children of 9/11 victims started smashing Lego planes into Lego buildings, some parents found it shocking and disturbing. But many of the child psychologists of the time knew that what seemed undesirable, was actually needed. Children, like the rest of us, require safe ways to explore the very things that horrify, disturb and spook them.
Most cultures, not least Ireland’s, have pondered monsters, ghosts, death and gore throughout history. I see no sign of us giving it up either, since it brings surprising benefits. When we gaze at the body on the road, it’s not that we enjoy death, but rather our brains are hungry for information to help us avoid a similar fate. We tell stories of violence and brutality not to promote aggression, but to find safe ways of dealing with that which frightens and disturbs us.
We also gaze into the dark, simply because it’s fascinating. And who can blame us, when the topic of death and dying holds 100 per cent relevance for every single one of us? To think we wouldn’t be intrigued by such topics is absurd.
Like my friend with a coffin in her lounge, the presence of the morbid certainly does shock. Yet it can prompt us to embrace life and contemplate the deepest questions of all. That’s certainly what I found, when I threw myself into the bizarre, controversial, often funny and strangely life-affirming world of morbid culture.
- The Frighteners: Why We Love Monsters, Ghosts, Death and Gore by Peter Laws is published by Icon, £12.99