So two guys are walking across the moors.
Yeah, you’ve heard this one.
Couple of young Americans are backpacking through Europe, and they duck in out of the cold, find themselves in the newly made quiet of a very local bar, where they get what turns out to be some pretty sage advice: beware the moon, keep clear of the moors, and, most important, stay on the road.
This is a story older than either them, the locals, or what we call Europe.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when and where we started telling ourselves the Little Red Riding Hood story, but the why is pretty easy: it espouses the safety of the village, the urban, over the known dangers of the unknown forest—the rural, where the hills always have eyes. It’s an admonition we know well, and we don’t even need stories or parents or scary wolves to feel its truth. We just have to listen to our inner ear, each time we’re walking across a bridge, a plank, a log: the middle is where safety is. The only thing to either side is a fall. The only thing off-path, it’s some version of death. It’s a balancing act we’ve even encoded into our religions. Buddhism’s Middle Path between austerity and hedonism, say, or Christianity’s Jesus, who’s neither man nor god, but right in that beatific middle.
Little Red Riding Hood feels true to us in a way we don’t even think to question. Because of that, it’s circled the globe time and again. Any meme should hope to go so viral. It’s the cautionary tale we hold the most dear, it’s the one that’s had the longest legs, it’s the one that doesn’t lose anything when it’s adapted into culture after culture, era after era, and you keep on finding versions of it the deeper you dig into history, into folktales—into us.
When we colonize other planets, and some mother’s kid is suiting up to go out into the glare, build castles with all that magnetic red sand, the reminder they’re going to groan about on the way out the door, it’s to stay on the path. To not trust strangers.
Your homing beacon only works close to the dome’s antenna, dear.
That nice alien isn’t making its first-contact face. That’s how it looks before dinner.
This cautionary tale of a young girl stepping off the path on the way to her grandmother’s has lasted so long because it never fails to improve the wanderer’s chance of survival. It comes down just to numbers: your mortality rate, it’s a lot higher off the path, in spite of what Robert Frost might urge. It does make “all the difference” to take the less-beaten way, yes—explorers do find things, and change the world—but more often than not, that difference is between life and death, between pleasure and pain, between happiness and unhappiness. Just ask Red. Did she regret her decision, upon seeing her new grandmother’s large teeth?
Not if she was a horror fan.
Yes, staying on the path is great advice for kids, for people, for all of us.
But not for horror characters.
People who aren’t into horror, they tend not to understand how all us sickos in our black t-shirts can revel in the bad ends awaiting so many of these characters. But they don’t understand two vital things: first, the horror story isn’t killing those characters off just for the shock or the transgression, or to feed some cruel impulse. What it’s doing is sacrificing them to the story—it’s establishing both that the horror is real, and that the stakes are mortal. Redshirts serve a purpose, and it’s not just to body-shield the main crew from the various barbs and arrows in this hostile landscape. They allow the story to establish stakes and deliver exposition.
Never mind that those shirts probably weren’t red before this landing party.
We cheer when these characters trip into their whirlpools of teeth, because this tells us the horror’s real, and here’s how it works.
That’s the first thing people not into horror don’t get.
The second thing is Little Red Riding Hood.
That’s who these characters are.
Most horror stories, they’re one of two kinds. They either subscribe to a system of closed justice, or to a system of open justice.
The Little Red Riding Hood story is a closed justice story. At its most basic level, it’s saying that if you stray from the path, you get what you deserve. If you don’t follow the advice you were freely given—if you don’t listen to your elders—there will be dire and permanent consequences. And, to be sure we cue into this dynamic, the stories tend to announce it for us.
Example: Friday the 13th. Remember Crazy Ralph on his bicycle? His job in that first installment, it’s to station himself at the entry point to the dangerous landscape and warn people away from Camp Blood, tell them that they’re all pretty doomed if they go out there and get up to all their teenage antics. What he’s saying to Annie and the rest, it’s to stay on the path, to stay where it’s safe.
But do these camp counsellors trickling into town listen? Of course not. This guy on the bike, he’s obviously not all there, and, besides, this is a job for them, this is work, this is money: these kids keep right on going, into all the machetes and arrows and worse. And? You can clean Crazy Ralph up into the completely respectable gas station attendant in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, you can make him scary like Mordecai in The Cabin in the Woods, and these kids still won’t listen to him.
No, these warnings tend to function more as gold-embossed invitations, as dares, as guarantees that some good times are waiting right over there. But, without these characters having at least the chance to pull the eject lever, then the horror they’re soon to have visited on them won’t feel like justice, will it? It won’t feel like they were asking for it.
But you don’t always need an actual walking talking harbinger, either. You don’t have to have a half-man stationed out at the edge of this dark carnival, to warn late night revelers away. Especially when the characters are so obviously asking for it.
Take Eleanor and crew, from The Haunting of Hill House. They didn’t just stumble out there to Hill House in any random way. They didn’t break down on the road like Brad and Janet, they didn’t inherit this estate in some dramatic reading of a will, and they’re not spending time there so as to renovate the place into an orphanage. No, this is a scientific experiment they’re engaging in. What they’re after is proof, which has real currency in the scientific world.
When you’re putting yourself at risk unnecessarily in a horror story, for money, for knowledge, for excitement, then what that means is you’re extending yourself in a way that leaves you not just vulnerable, but that actually makes you a target. You’re stepping off the path for some fruit you don’t absolutely have to have. You’re being tempted out into the shadows. And not for no reason.
Every hungry thing in those woods, it holds it breath until your foot takes that first step away from its safe, controlled place.
Eleanor and the rest of that crew in Hill House, they’re complicit in their own doom. They’ve elected to submit themselves to a closed system of justice. They’re asking for it.
When someone gets mauled by a bear because they poked it while it was sleeping, you don’t feel as sorry for them as you might have, do you?
They brought it on themselves. So it is in a horror story subscribing to a closed system of justice. We cringe from the manner, but the why, that makes perfect and complete sense.
What people who aren’t into horror usually don’t stick around long enough to get—they can’t see past the blood and the screaming—it’s that this dynamic of characters meeting the ends they’ve brought about themselves, it confirms our secret wish that the world might just be a fair and balanced place. In the same breath, it urges us to take stock of our own behavior, and judge whether we’ve invited any horror into our own lives. When we haven’t, then this horror story, unintuitively, it actually leaves us feeling safer, never mind the monsters or ghosts it’s gotten us to believe in on the way. Those are monsters and ghosts that target people who deserve it. And we don’t deserve it. We know better than to ask for it, we know better than to invite it in.
By watching characters stray from the path and not come back, we’ve learned to stay on the path.
This is how cautionary tales work.
As for the other side of the horror coin, open cycles of justice, best-known, probably, is The Exorcist. Has innocent little twelve-year-old Regan done anything to invite a demon into her life? Her mother works a lot, leaving her alone, but we can’t make that Regan’s fault. Her father and mother are divorcing, but again: not Regan’s fault. She plays with a Ouija board, sure, but this is after her possession has started. The demon suggests that the reason she was targeted was to show the “animal” and “ugly” in the most innocent, but being human and cute is hardly asking for horror.
No, Regan doesn’t poke any bear, she doesn’t stir any hornet’s nest. Yet she gets bitten all the same.
Stories like this, they populate the shadows with teeth that are going to be there regardless of whether we called them up. Horror stories with open cycles of justice are fundamentally disturbing because what they do is put us all in that victim pool. We don’t feel safe. These stories show us that staying on the path doesn’t save you—nothing can save you. When the horror wants you, the horror’s taking you, and it can be as arbitrary and random as it wants. All our names are in that bad hopper, and one unfine day, it might get called, and there’s not a single thing we can do about it.
Even Lovecraft’s cosmic conception of the supernatural, for all that it made us insignificant, wasn’t that dark, finally. His characters tend to open some book they shouldn’t have, at which point they get what they deserve, and we, by engaging that story, feel safer by the time it’s processed us through.
And of course there are boundary cases, stories where it’s difficult to say whether this is an open or closed cycle of justice.
The Shining, say. We can argue that it’s modeled on The Haunting of Hill House, of course, but, really, I think it’s more just that both of these novels are haunted house stories, so end up processing through the same haunted-house dynamic. Hill House, however, was obviously closed-cycle: this crew shouldn’t have been there. Even if you somehow make the scientific endeavor “honest” and positive, then still, this crew, they’re getting stipends for participating—they’re getting paid to put their necks on the chopping block. Whatever happens after that point, that’s on them.
The Shining is a more complicated story. Jack Torrance does bring his family to the Overlook for relief from money pressure. And Jack is warned against staying there, in that he’s spoonfed the cautionary tale of what happened to a previous caretaker and that caretaker’s family. And before the snows come, the Torrances do have the chance to escape this Bad Place. Yes, obligation keeps them there, yes, limited economic choices keep them there, but, once the house starts digesting them, does it ever feel like they were asking for it? Like they deserve this? Like they compromised themselves in some way that conjured up this psychic meatgrinder special for them?
I contend that no, they don’t deserve this.
They’re innocents, caught in the maw of some monster. Jack has a spotted past and checkered present, sure, but, instead of that making him fodder, I submit that what that’s doing is asking us who among us is perfect?
We’re all Jack. We’re all in this victim pool. There are bad whisperings in the back of all of our minds. None of us will ever quite outrun who we are.
This is fundamentally different from teens traipsing down to Camp Blood for some good summer fun.
Speaking of: note the obvious difference between The Shining and Friday the 13th: bodycount, and kill-intensity.
A lot of the time, just keeping your analysis that shallow can tell you whether this is a closed- or open justice system.
In closed-justice horror stories, life is simply worth less, in that it’s being spent to establish stakes and deliver exposition. In Alien, when the xenomorph is stalking and slashing its way through the Nostromo’s crew in order to establish how this monster does what it does, so as to stage the final battle for us, we might cringe from the manner of each kill, but we don’t feel that emotional gut punch of “he shouldn’t have died, should he have?”
They all should be dying. They compromised themselves when they went down to the planet for “a share” of the discovery, they invited the horror by looking down into that pod, and then they sealed their fate by, in spite of Ripley’s objections, letting an infected crew member back on board.
Closed, closed, closed. They’re getting what they were asking for.
And this distinction between open- and closed justice isn’t just something that used to happen. It’s still as in-play as it ever was. Check Get Out, where the main character is warned not to submit himself to the strange and dangerous world of his girlfriend’s parents—warned not just by his friend, but by his own misgivings, by the tendency of bad history to get even worse, and then, in case we missed it, there’s an encounter with a cop who’s practically stationed at the edge of this horror to warn him away. Yet our hero pushes on. Not for money this time, but for love.
The result is the same: horror, horror, and then a side-helping of horror.
One thing closed justice horror stories have more often than horror stories subscribing to open cycles of justice is endings with redemption, endings where the horror is overcome, endings where the right people win.
Look at The Exorcist. Look at The Shining. Any victories in these open cycles of justice, they’re in the minor key, for sure, and pretty temporary besides.
In a closed-justice horror story like Get Out, though, some version of a “final girl” survivor usually rises, some person not as compromised as the rest of the crew, and is able to redeem not just herself, but, in the process, all of us. This is different than just surviving, which is usually all you can hope for in some good and brutal open-justice horror.
What the final girl in a closed-justice horror story illustrates, however, is that, with willpower, with effort, with resolve, you can fight your way through a closed cycle of justice. In a lot of the versions of Little Red Riding Hood—check Angela Carter—Red overcomes the wolf, she turns the closed cycle of justice back on him, showing him that it’s his transgression that’s actually punishable by death. And it’s usually a pretty hard death.
Which is another characteristic of closed cycles of justice: the kills are so much harder, so much gorier, so much more fun—they have to be, for the “caution” of the cautionary tale to lodge in us as deeply as they do. In open cycles of justice, since these people haven’t invited this horror in—since they don’t deserve it—each life matters more, so each life is treated with more respect.
Another way to look at it is that while open cycles of justice might have more resonance, finally, as they conform to what we see in the world around us—random unfairness, persistent injustice, bad things happening to good people—horror stories with closed cycles of justice posit a world we would like to believe in, a world where wrongs are righted, where the guilty are punished and the innocent let pass.
Sometimes you want one, sometimes you need the other, and sometimes, trying to think it all through, you’re just bellied up to that bar in Wales, slaughtering pint after pint, when two young Americans stumble in, look around expectantly, innocently, hopefully.
This is where horror stories go one way or the other.
This is where we, the audience, the readers, get our cue for how to take everything that’s about to follow: do we cringe at the deaths coming our way, or do we cheer?
It makes all the difference. A story that’s loud and gory but is gleefully chewing its way through characters who don’t deserve it is probably going to rub our built-in sense of justice the wrong way. Just the same, a slasher that’s reverential with each life and timid about showing all the characters’ bright insides is going to get us pleading with the page or the screen, for something to happen already.
So, which way does this story about these backpacking Americans play out? Which system will it subscribe to? What are you, sitting at the bar, going to tell this bright-eyed kid?
If it helps, make note of what color jacket the tall one’s wearing.
This’ll tell you exactly what story’s he’s already in.
All you have to do now is say it: Beware the moon. Stay off the moors.
Keep to the path.
It won’t do any good, it never does, but horror’s a ritual, and if we don’t all say our lines at the right time, then the rest of the story doesn’t get to happen. And we dearly want it to happen. As The Cabin in the Woods showed us, we need it to happen, and this way, always this way: two smiling American backpackers, telling jokes as they walk out into the howling darkness. A dot of red being swallowed by the misting rain, and then, somewhere deeper in the night, blooming red again for about as long as a scream lasts.
This article was originally published in May 2017.
Stephen Graham Jones is the author of 22 or 23 books, 250+ stories, and all this stuff here. His horror novella, Mapping the Interior, is available June 20th from Tor.com Publishing. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, and has a few broken-down old trucks, one PhD, and way too many boots.