I’ve written before about how I think horror is a wonderful way to explore topics that people generally feel uncomfortable with, in such a way that there’s enough distance to not directly state the problem. I was talking to a friend recently about what his art is to him and he said he felt it was a way for himself to feel seen, to express particular thoughts and feelings that he might not be able to in words or that people might not normally see in him. I feel the same, in some ways, but there is something very unique about art that I think the surrealist Rene Magritte put best in “The Treachery of Images”: What you’re seeing isn’t the real thing. Ceci n’est pas une pipe.
The myth of Medusa is probably my favorite myth of all time because beyond the story itself, I think she’s a wonderful metaphor for a lot of things, art being one. The myth is, of course, that one cannot look directly at Medusa or else they will be turned to stone and killed. (The Japanese horror movie “The Ring” is, in my opinion, a retelling of the Medusa myth.) You have to look at her through a mirror or reflective surface if you want to deal with her. That reflective surface, the mirror, is what my art is to me.
In this metaphor Medusa represents trauma in some ways, but also just any parts of ourselves or the world around us that we have difficulty facing and addressing head on. Filtering that kind of stuff through the mirror, through art, gives us a safe way to deal with it, to create a representation, a facsimile, of the thing we struggle with. There is enough distance that we are not hurt by it, but enough similarity that one can still recognize the signifiers.
The horror genre is therefore a kind of mirror through which we can see the Medusa of social problems, or personal problems, as in the case of Franz Kafka. Kafka struggled a lot with his abusive father so it’s no surprise that the father figures and authority figures in his stories are overbearing, oppressive, cruel and insensitive. It’s no surprise that many of his main characters never get where they’re going, consistently blocked on their paths to making progress due to their inability to properly assert themselves, due to being constantly overwhelmed by these men who seem less human and more forces of nature.
I’ve written a few horror stories related to nightmares I’ve had. I used to get sleep paralysis and night terrors, although I luckily don’t anymore (general nightmares are still a frequent problem). What are nightmares, though, but our own built-in mirrors with which to view the litany of Medusas that plague us? Turning them into a story feels a bit like turning a mirror onto the mirror.
I don’t think my friend and I disagree, and I think every artist would give a different answer to the question of what their art is to them. For him it’s a way for people to see him, parts of himself that maybe the people closest to him might never catch a glimpse of; for me it’s a mirror I use to safely examine issues that affect me; for someone else it might be a way to try and reproduce things they find beautiful.
Art that acts as a mirror is the most interesting kind to me personally, though. It can be comforting to know you’re not the only one out there fighting the same monsters. Like in Kafka’s letter to his father, even though he lived in a different place, in a different time, we are connected in that we’re hounded by the same Medusa.
Johanna Armstrong is the Lifestyle editor for The Daily Journal.