I spend a lot of time making guesses about what people will like — which articles they’ll click on, which one’s they’ll share, what type of articles people save and read again and again. The guesses were always the same, people like lists, they like funny, they like short, positive Upworthy type stories. So last spring when I was working with a writer I really liked, Cliff Barlow, bringing his horror fiction to Thought Catalog I thought I was fighting an uphill battle. Creepy doesn’t go viral, that’s what we all thought.
Something strange happened. Despite all the talk about what people wanted to read, Cliff’s stories started finding an audience — and that audience grew bigger. The most unlikely of viral hits, a 2-page horror fiction story called I Always Thought Something Was Off About My Basement, But I Had No Idea How Terrifying The Truth Was spread throughout the internet until it had amassed 3 million pageviews.
And then I realized, what Cliff is doing isn’t new. Horror has always been a part of the internet, but it’s always been relegated to one-off websites with permanent Angelfire-era graphics and forums like r/nosleep. The desire to be scared will always be something people want, whatever other trends come and go. It’s a bit counterintuitive — why would we want to be afraid? To shed some light on our dark desires, I’ve invited Cliff Barlow himself to answer some questions on the horror genre.
Cliff, help me out here, why do we love horror?
I think a certain portion of the population “gets it” for lack of a better term.
This genre is so polarizing. There are those among us that are just wholly captivated by the darkness and in equal measure are people repelled by anything related to horror and the macabre. I find myself, since a young age, gravitating toward dread and the unknown. It’s intangible and innate to die hards in the genre. I am always so elated when I find someone that adores horror even a fraction as much as I do.
What type of person is drawn to horror?
I find that horror aficionados tend to be inquisitive and courageous people, always seeking answers where others fear to tread.
Counterintuitively, I find that horror fans are some of the most well-adjusted people. I think that this is born out of the fact that they acknowledge and accept the terror that is always on the periphery of human existence. By wallowing in it as a past time, they are able to adapt to the curve balls and tragedy that life is wont to throw at us.
On a more personal level, why do you find yourself drawn to horror writing? what’s the difference between wanting to write like say, Joan Didion, and Stephen King?
I am a lifelong horror fan. I’ve been consuming scary video games, movies, books, etc. for as long as I can remember. I’ve never had dreams of writing fiction — I studied psychology in college. As a matter of fact I had never written so much as one creative piece until about three years ago.
I would peruse the subreddit /r/nosleep and was enthralled with the stories I stumbled across. Some of them were truly amazing, the passion of these writers for horror. The posts all contained an amateurish quality that added to the authenticity and removed any fears I had of giving it a go. The idea of writing horror fiction had crossed my mind previously, and with such a low barrier of entry, I decided, why not give it a shot? It seems simply through osmosis I had a knack for spinning dark tales. I haven’t looked back since
What are some of your all-time favorites in the genre?
In terms of literature, Stephen King really is the undisputed master of the genre. At a too-young age (I believe I was 11), I read Salem’s Lot. This was a seminal experience for me. I immediately devoured everything he has ever written and still await every new release with bated breath.
In terms of films, there are some classics of course that immediately spring to mind. The Exorcist, Suspiria, Dawn of the Dead, and The Shining to name a few. However, as of late, I find myself gravitating towards movies that aren’t explicitly horror but are terrifying nonetheless. I am a huge fan of the works of David Lynch. He is so adept at illuminating the space between reality and nightmares that I am constantly enthralled with his work. The surrealism of Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, and Eraserhead scare me to death. Also, I can’t get enough of the filmography of David Cronenberg. Movies like Videodrome are just so raw and visceral, they plunge beneath the surface and find horror in places other genre directors are incapable. Video game wise, I would argue that Silent Hill 2 is a flawless masterpiece. Simply put, I think it is the greatest story ever told. It is so powerful and horrifying that I get literal goosebumps just thinking about it.
When you write, where do your ideas come from?
I guess in terms of inspiration I mainly draw from two sources. First, I just find something in my life that I am fearful of or is providing me with anxiety and construct a horror fiction narrative around it.
It is very cathartic and empowering to be able to do this. For example, I wrote a story simply entitled, The Devil. It is in essence about how guilt is a devastating and destructive force. I was feeling an overwhelming sense of remorse about something at the time, and I figured the best way to exorcise that demon would be to use metaphors to process these feelings in a healthy way. The strong emotions that were encumbering me subsided the second the story was published.
Secondly, I’ll just be reading an article or something and out of nowhere an idea for a horror story will pop into my head. The Mr. Blinky story came to me as I was reading about how here in NYC there had been a couple incidences of mascots attacking children. This was inherently creepy enough but it galvanized me to embellish and create a terrifying story with that news item as a jumping off point.
Long-Term Care came to me as I was reading about how a coma patient was communicating with a doctor via fmri. I immediately saw how that could have potential for a fucking terrifying story and was done with a first draft in a couple of hours. Whether the source is internal or external, just being attuned to the horror of day to day life can yield great results.
Who is the demon Otch and did you create him?
As a child, my older brother did have recurring dreams about a demon he called “Otch.” Instead of a stereotypically monstrous look with sinister green eyes and cloven hooves for feet as I have described him in my stories. My brother always said that he looked exactly like Guy Smiley from Sesame Street but with a seven foot tall figure.
He would speak in a high pitch voice and tell him to commit horrible acts all while saying very blasphemous things (fucking horrifying, right?). This used to scare me so badly that one night I could swear I could see Otch hiding in my closet. When I decided to try my hand at horror fiction, this story immediately sprang to mind. My first short story ever was about Otch. A radically improved version of this tale is, “He’ll Get You Too,” is included in my new short story collection Darkness Prevails.
When I first posted that story. A user commented with a link to a real demon with a similar name. I found it very disturbing that there is a “known” demon out there with the name of “Och” how did my brother come up with that name at the tender age of 9?
Otch is easily one of my favorite play things and his ongoing story is going to directly intertwine with the malevolent character that I am introducing in this new collection, Petru Beklea. They are going to attempt to and just might succeed in creating a veritable hell on earth, Honestly, I’ve never been more excited about a storyline and can’t wait to see where these two lead me.