Reflections on Slowing Down to Look at the Accident

I resolved to spend at least a few hours every night of my eight days of vacation time working on the rewrite of my novel-in-progress. I failed at that endeavor. I have no excuses other than I was not, in the words of Stephen King, "brave enough to start."

It is true, that starting is the hardest part. During the course of my vacation, I became cleverly adept at finding excuses to not write, such as building an entertainment center in my living room.

I believe King also once described an audience’s desire to read horror novels or watch horror movies as akin to "slowing down to look at the car accident." I would swear I read that in Danse Macabre many years ago, but I can’t seem to find the precise quote now. The closest I could find is King’s oft-quoted assertion that "we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones."

Regardless, slowing down to look at the car accident is an apt metaphor for horror readers. From personal experience, I believe there are typically four types of people involved in a car accident, even if the accident directly involves only two parties.

  1. victims, those directly involved, whether at fault, killed, injured, or suffering some kind of property damage
  2. aiders, those witnesses to the accident who are first to render aid by tending to the wounded; rescuers and heroes also fall into this category
  3. communicators, those who place the call to 911, who help to divert traffic until police arrive, who pray, or who otherwise relay information from the scene
  4. rubberneckers, those who stand by and watch or (assuming traffic is flowing past the accident) slow their vehicles to a crawl and crane their necks out their windows to get a better look at what’s going on

In the world of fictional horror entertainment, only two of the above four are real-life people: the communicator and the rubberneckers. The communicator produces the narrative and the rubberneckers purchase and read it. The victims, the aiders, and the accident itself are all products of the communicator’s imagination.

It might sound like a pejorative term, but there’s nothing about being a rubbernecker that isn’t also a part of being human. You need only confirm by looking to the millions of people who tune into reality television shows, who watch news stories about natural disasters, or who tune in to the murder trials of parents of deceased children. Humanity is fascinated by the tragic and the macabre, real or imagined, and we rarely turn away from it.