She staggers down a suburban street. Her left foot has been limping since the knife sank into her thigh, but it’s the blood loss that’s slowing her down, making her weak. He’s still following her, keeping that signature slow, steady pace of his that never quickens. The stars above are lost to the streetlights. She’s screaming between breaths, or at least she’s trying to. Her throat is already raw. Lights awaken in the houses on either side. Silhouettes peer out between curtains. Doors lock instead of opening. She hasn’t the strength to keep running. No one knows what they’re dealing with, only that the virus is highly contagious. Anyone could have it. Anyone could catch it. And it could be months before they’ve developed a vaccine. The safest thing, everyone’s been told, is to stay inside and isolate. And so their doors stay shut. The killer is close enough now that she can see his facemask. Everyone’s wearing them. It could be someone she knows. She shields herself with her bare arms when he raises the knife, buying a few more seconds. The pain is blinding. Any other year, and she might have made it as far as the credits like a bona fide final girl.
Horror has always been a socially responsive genre. As fears change over time, so too does their influence on popular culture. Slasher films were a reaction in the 1970s and 1980s to reports of serial killers across America. And as travel became cheaper and the world more accessible in the early 2000s, horror transferred to foreign countries. The lure of adventure and the promise of some lost paradise duped backpackers into losing their organs or their lives, or both. Few other genres have kept their vulture eye on the world quite like horror has, always seeking inspiration in the darkest of places.
2020 will forever be synonymous with society’s struggle to contain and counter the spread of the Coronavirus. Our helplessness was universally felt. No different from the black death or the Spanish flu, the shared threat upon our lives was unseen and ubiquitous. Its asymptomatic tendencies served only to bolster its lethality. Had it worn a mask – such as the red death in Prospero’s abbey – it could have been more easily identified and evaded. But it masqueraded instead as the healthy, infecting indiscriminately, killing the weak, and inevitably enforcing a lonely mode of existence that led many to suicide. Horror writers were always going to respond accordingly.
Viruses and infectious diseases have long held their own sub-genre within the wider spectrum of horror, commonly post-apocalyptic in setting or relying on zombies to keep everyone on their toes. The Coronavirus, however, stands to grow a branch of its own, though it may be some time before it’s deemed commercially viable. We are currently in a gestation period for the pandemic as an artform. Lockdown fatigue hasn’t yet lifted. Restrictions persist, and in some places tighten. Memories of the losses and hardships incurred are still too fresh to be cultivated into something resembling entertainment. As reading is a form of escapism, it begs the question why anyone would want to escape back into the worst global crisis since the second world war. But for those who dare, how can it be done?
The pandemic must be treated similarly to the dramatic principle of Chekhov’s gun, in that it should only be chosen as the time period if it’s relevant to the story being told. Those fears that flourished in 2020 must be present and active. Restrictions, too, especially in urban centres should be factored into the narrative or else it will read like any other year. This might not seem especially interesting on the surface. But within these social constraints lies the opportunities. What exactly can the horror writer take from them and use to their advantage? The answer is, quite simply, everything.
Courtesy of tinfoil hats the world over, there are myriad conspiracy theories muddying the truth of the virus. Never has misinformation been more rampant than it is in our present day. Confusion and misdirection are just some of the writer’s tools best whetted to capitalise upon it. The fear here lies in the familiar trope of the unknown, and the creeping suspicion that all we think we know is a lie (common to any horror sub-genre).
A soft reimagining of the pandemic could embrace the classic what if? scenario. Take what we have survived through – formidable as it was – and turn the screw. More symptoms. More death. More new strains. More fears turned violent. More friends revealed as foes. But these horrors, though still interesting to explore, are derivative of past ideas.
The Coronavirus is utterly unique. Its outbreak doesn’t need to be the central threat of the story. On the contrary, the most valuable assets are the other details that defined our experiences – the circumstances and situations that horror writers seek so often and yet rarely find in such abundance. The emptiness. The silence. The isolation. The eerie abandonment of buildings and properties. Ageing without event. Dying without cure or consequence. Desperate times evoking desperate means and distrust amongst us. Fears of loneliness, loss and death thrive perfectly well without coming into direct contact with a virus. But knowing that it’s out there certainly helps.
Before our potential final girl set a foot on that street, the contagion had already infected the minds of all those living there. She was alone and helpless, like so many of us felt during that time. There were no cars on the road. Even if there were, would any of them have stopped to rescue her? The suburb was desolately quiet save for the killer’s footsteps and her faint, hopeless screams as they grew closer. The Coronavirus may not have killed her but it sure as hell played its part. And it will continue to do so as long as our fears and our horror writers keep it alive.
Read The Watchers by A.M. Shine
You can read a short story by A.M. Shine in Grimdark Magazine Issue #28.