Featured image by Dave McKean
Cover Art by Dave McKean
“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald
*A note on the italicized material: This blog follows a tight narrative on a variety of aspects of the Psychological Horror genre and the Horror Community. As a method of keeping with a narrative, I include brief bites of creative writing, a sort of short story that bleeds in to the next post, beginning with the ending of the first post on this site. Consider it our metaphorical journey through these dark works, to accompany the literal one.
And we see ourselves. The laughter of insanity rings in our ears, quite loudly, echoing over miles, yet all around us.
It begins to drive you to a place you have never been before. To the brink of your own sanity and just when you thought it was over-
You need to confront your own past.
Psychological horror is about so much more than simply exploring the more intelligent themes that the horror genre has to offer. It forces us to reflect on our own lives, decisions (both good and poor), and, perhaps most importantly, our selves.
We must look deep into our own hearts, to our innermost fears and hope beyond hope that what we find there does not drive us to insanity. Some, arguably, must walk a tightrope in between such places.
Batman enters the Asylum at The Joker’s bidding… Art by Dave McKean
In the graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, we are introduced to the intertwined stories, shown in juxtaposition, of Batman, the ultimate antihero, and Amadeus Arkham, founder of the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane.
Amadeus’s side shows us how he came to create the Asylum and how he would eventually become one of the Asylum’s most infamous permanent residents. Batman’s story, shows us how his greatest nemesis, The Joker, has taken the Asylum by force, killing some of the doctors and with only one goal in mind…
To show Batman the depth of his own insanity.
The Joker believes Batman to be insane already, and argues that if he can survive the night inside the Asylum, run by the likes of Two-Face, the Black Mask, The Scarecrow and The Joker himself, whilst also keeping the mask of his own wits, then The Joker would give control of the Asylum back to the surviving staff.
Looking Further and Further…
Why, you ask, does this story elevate the Psychological Horror genre? Simple. It asks us hard questions and seeks only hard truths. Regardless of the medium, Psychological Horror will force characters to look at their true fears.
Not arachnophobia, not a fear of heights or water. True, real horror. Horror and Terror.
Batman walks through the Asylum, surviving the tests of his worst enemies, constantly confronting madness and his own worst nightmares at every turn; the death of his parents being chief among them.
Bruce Wayne (Batman), as a child, witnessed the brutal murder of his parents and constantly finds himself questioning his own actions and judgements. Would his parents accept him with open arms? Or simply look the other way in utter disgust and rejection?
Batman, supposedly, in cloak and cowl, is not bothered by such trivial matters, but the man beneath is another story.
Duality in Psychological Horror
This level of duality, being Bruce Wayne versus Batman, is a constant theme of Psychological Horror, and is outlined on numerous levels within this story. The stories of Amadeus Arkham and Batman walking the same paths in many panels being juxtaposed is another example. A final example of Duality within the story is that of Two-Face.
Two-Face is a villain of Batman, who suffers an extreme split-personality disorder. One personality is Harvey Dent, the heroic former District Attorney of Gotham City, the other being the villainous Two-Face, a heinous criminal who makes all of his decisions based on the flip of a coin.
Two-Face/Harvey Dent preparing to pass judgement on Batman’s life…. By Dave McKean
Our story ends with a coin toss, one that allows Batman to walk out of this personal hell and give control of the Asylum back to the rightful controllers. As he leaves, The Joker informs that if he ever gets tired of the droll rationality of the outside world, that he will always have a place at Arkham.
Batman in conversation with The Joker…. Art by Dave McKean
Batman, after all, is a split-personality.
Creating a Lasting Masterwork: Fitting Arkham into the Annals of Psychological Horror
Arkham has all of the classic qualities of psychological horror. The words are dark and poetic. Each page is filled, border-to-border, with artwork that is both haunting and beautiful; disjointed and terrifying. It disturbs us to look upon it and yet we cannot take our eyes away.
But what is it that makes it a defining work within the psychological horror subgenre?
A staple of psychological horror, as outlined in my qualities of a psychological horror article, is the use of Abnormal Psychology, which can be defined as the examining psychological traits that are not normally discussed academically, such as criminal or extreme personality traits, the exploration of dreams and exploring the deeper levels of subconscious thought.
Essentially, it goes far beyond pop-psych, and into much darker realms and deeper dimensions of reality.
A poor psychological horror story would scratch the surface of these themes, a good psychological horror story lives there.
And, to reflect on the opening statements of this article once more, a good psychological horror story will make us question not only what we thought we knew, but our own selves. As Batman travels deeper into the heart of darkness, we find ourselves reflecting on our own fears, desires and nightmares. We are forced to do this, just as Batman is.
It is uncomfortable, disturbing and ultimately cathartic.
Such is the purpose of psychological horror.
So, I lied, but just once. We were able to walk away this time, but not unchanged. Batman did not perish in the flames, as our dearly departed Sgt. Howie did, but was Batman so lucky? Are we? Darkness takes us again and this time, we find ourselves walking through the woods. The moon is absent from roll call, but that’s alright. You find a camera in your hands that once held a lantern and turn it on. Looking through the lens, you find light and a new perspective on journey. Something moves just ahead of us, and startled, we-