Inside the Cult of Fear: Finding Humanity in Horror Fiction

I am, in many ways, a tremendous scaredy-cat.

I don’t make it through many horror movies without hiding behind my hands. They give me nightmares, and the jump scares get me every single time. To be honest, I don’t even need a movie to fall victim to a jump scare; loud noises and barking dogs and somebody sneezing when I don’t expect it will do the trick. You’ll never get me into a haunted corn maze because I am completely certain the corn will eat me. At a middle school sleepover, I flinched so dramatically when the hand came out of the TV in Poltergeist that I gave myself a charley horse. And you can ask my younger sister how much fun she has tormenting me with my fear of moths. (Yes, I know they are harmless and even rather cute. I just can’t stand the way they sit perfectly still for hours and hours and hours and you never know when they are going to flutter.) I’ve always been this way.

I also love horror fiction. Love it. Love to read it, love to write it, love to talk about it. Stories full of fucked-up shit are my jam. This doesn’t feel like a contradiction to me. I don’t think it’s a contradiction for many lovers of horror fiction. We like to poke and prod at all the things in the world that frighten us—rather like worrying at a sore tooth, except it’s never just one tooth. There are always more teeth. It’s teeth all the way down.

This is especially true in long-form, serialized storytelling. The Magnus Archives is a horror fiction podcast written by Jonathan Sims and produced by the London-based company Rusty Quill; it has been going since 2016 and is now in its fifth and final season. It is about a series of terrible things that happen to a group of people who work at the mysterious Magnus Institute in London, an academic research institute devoted to studying supernatural and esoteric phenomena. Each episode features the institute’s skeptical head archivist (also named Jonathan Sims) making an audio recording of some person’s eyewitness account of some weird and awful and inexplicable event in their life. A strange encounter in a dark alley. Books and objects that have unexplained powers. Experiences with the impossible and inexplicable. Childhood memories that have left deep psychological scars. Creepy-crawlies and things that go bump in the night. Some really very unpleasant body horror.

This parade of unsettling events appears, at first, to be a collection of unrelated phenomena, rather like creepypasta-meets-M.R. James in the form of an episodic audio drama. The head archivist is quick to state—in scathingly dismissive terms—that the vast majority of so-called supernatural phenomena are absolutely nonsense, most likely the product of unwell or intoxicated minds, or overactive imaginations, or too much credulity from people who really ought to know better. One might be forgiven for thinking, during the early episodes, that this is the full breadth of the story: skeptical academics, unfortunate eyewitnesses, and disparate horrors that can never be explained.

But appearances, like everything else, can be very deceiving.

The unveiling of the central story in The Magnus Archives is gradual, but it doesn’t take all that many episodes for it to become obvious that everything is connected in some awful, hidden way. And, to be absolutely clear, by “everything is connected,” I don’t mean “mostly monster-of-the-week with occasional arc episodes.” I mean everything. Everything that we hear, from the events described in each episode to the manner in which the statements are recorded to the emotional impact each event has on the characters, it’s all part of a much bigger story. Dig down beneath the surface and it turns out this isn’t quirky, episodic creepypasta at all, but is instead pure cosmic horror, the kind of high-concept storytelling in which every element conspires to make you feel small and lost and powerless in a monstrously uncaring reality.

When I started writing this essay, I took a break from the heartrendingly bleak fifth season of The Magnus Archives to go back and listen to the first season all over again, curious about how my perspective would change now that I know more about what’s going on. What I discovered is that it is a particularly wicked delight to see how well it all fits together. Even knowing that every terrible thing that happens is going to lead to more terrible things happening and those terrible things will break my heart, I found myself muttering, “You clever fucking assholes, well played,” more than once. (Apologies to writer Jonny Sims and the entire podcast team, but seriously—well played, assholes.)

I love a creepy, atmospheric premise with a wicked puzzle-box center as much as anybody, but for a story to dig its claws in it has to have an emotional hook, and that’s where the characters matter. Even the most horrifying concept has only minimal impact if it isn’t happening to somebody—preferably somebody we come to care about. The structure of The Magnus Archives uses a curious nesting-doll approach to characterization in which a large majority of the text is one character reading the intensely personal accounts of dozens of characters. Jonathan Sims-the-writer does the lion’s share of the voice acting in the podcast, as Jonathan Sims-the-character serves as the conduit through which almost everybody else’s eldritch nightmares are communicated. But this is no passive recitation of dry statements. The words themselves have power on both speaker and listener. Sometimes that power is distantly philosophical, sometimes it is intensely personal, sometimes it is anything and everything in-between, but it is always part of the story. In Episode 17, “The Bone-Turner’s Tale, ” a librarian who finds a strange book in their returns box reflects on the power of language:

People don’t give the actuality of language the weight it deserves, I feel. Words are a way of taking your thoughts, the very make-up of yourself, and giving them to another. Putting your thoughts in the mind of someone else. They are not a perfect method, of course, as there’s plenty of scope for mutation and corruption between your mind and that of the listener, but that doesn’t change the essence of what language is. Spoken aloud, though, the thought dies quickly if not picked up, simple vibrations that vanish almost as soon as they are created. Though if they find a host, they can lodge there, proliferate, and maybe spread further.

As the story builds, both the roster of characters and the cast of voice actors grows, and we get to know a diverse group of people with a few things in common. (Those things are: 1. a connection to the Magnus Institute that inevitably ruins their lives, and 2. every last one of them is the person in the horror movie who not only agrees to explore the spooky house on a stormy night but also volunteers to go into the basement alone, without a light, when the ominous wailing starts. Oh, and I don’t think any of them are straight? Not so you’d notice, anyway.) This is where the story’s emotional hooks really dig in, because we go along with these characters as they grow and change (sometimes for the better, sometimes…really very much not), as friendships form and break, as they make both allies and enemies, as they discover more and more awful things about themselves and their world. All that, and we also get to watch the world’s most emotionally stunted and socially awkward slow-build queer romance as it unfolds.

This approach works extremely well, because once you start caring about imaginary people who live inside somebody else’s head, it’s pretty hard to stop. In a story full of gruesome, horrible, painful things, few scenes hit me as hard as those in which emotional descriptions of loneliness and isolation, which take the form of beautiful, vivid language building an empty landscape of muted feeling and stifling fog and not-quite-familiar echoes muffled just beyond the range of comprehension. Those parts of the story aren’t scary, necessarily, but they always feel to me as though something has reached into my chest and taken hold of little knots of truth I would prefer to keep hidden, those experiences and memories that come along with being a chronically depressed person who has spent her entire life cosplaying somebody who is Just Fine.

The slow peeling back of the backstory and plot, the complex point of view and evolving characters, the carefully-timed reveals of everything that has gone wrong in the world of the story, all of it adds up to a whole that is more terrible than any of its individual parts. This is what great horror, especially great cosmic horror with a strong emotional core, does so very well: It uses escalating unease and creeping dread to weave together a reality in which every strange happening, every reported monster, every wavering voice, every unexpected sound, every frightened whisper, every suspicion, and every secret is part of a truth that remains unseen until all the pieces are in place.

Horror is an incredibly subjective genre of storytelling. Fear is universal to the experience of being human, but there is great diversity in what we fear, why we fear it, and how we react to it. To provide a single mundane example: I personally don’t think there’s anything in any wilderness anywhere near as frightening as my fellow humans, so stories that rely entirely upon the presumed horrors of the natural world fall flat for me. Mostly they just make me really sad that not everybody appreciates the world’s most cuddly-wuddly-lazy-floppy adorable murder machines as much as I do. (Bears. I’m talking about bears. Stop writing about bears as horror monsters. They are perfect beauties who deserve only love.) You’ve got to put people in that wilderness for it to scare me. In a much broader sense, our cultural, racial, religious, and social backgrounds all play a part in what we find frightening in fiction and how we react to it—for better or worse, because horror can reflect and amplify our basest, most xenophobic or sexist or racist fears, but it can also be a tool for turning those fears inside out and pick them apart to expose their faults.

We’re all afraid of something, but we’re not all afraid of the same things for the same reasons. This is part of why I find the structure of The Magnus Archives so fascinating and effective. When every element of the story is, by design, a different person’s eyewitness account of one small facet of a whole, and every one of those accounts describes in relentless and eloquent detail how a singular experience has disrupted their life and irrevocably damaged their sense of place in the world, and all of those stories are woven together as part of an awful tapestry, there is no place for the listener to hide. There’s no lasting relief from the creeping dread, because even if a specific episode or event doesn’t delve into your own deepest and darkest fears, it is still part of that larger horror, that inescapable whole.

Let us pause here for a spoiler warning.

Spoiler warning!

I’m not going to go into great detail about any specific plot points, but I am going to discuss some broader story strokes and developments that a would-be listener who prefers as little info as possible might want to avoid. You’ve been warned.

One of the things our hapless (yet beloved!) characters gradually learn is that there are people in their world who worship fear. And, yes, that sounds like it could be very vague or complicated, but in truth it is rather simple and distressingly specific. There are groups of people—cults, they are unequivocally cults—who worship fear the same way other people might worship deities, or influence, or celebrity, or money, or all of those things combined. How this manifests and what effects it has varies quite a lot through the different threads of the story, because it turns out there are quite a few of these groups running around, in quite a few different shapes and forms.

But there are some commonalities, and it is in those shared characteristics that The Magnus Archives is at its most genuinely terrifying. One such element that I think about the most—always present in the back of my mind, like an earworm I can’t shake—is how these fear cults rely so confidently on dismantling any sense of empathetic humanity to accomplish their goals. They have to dehumanize both their members and their victims—sometimes literally—to gain and maintain their power. They have to stop seeing people as people, with human needs and human desires and human value, and instead see them as sacrifices, or fuel, or playthings, or objects, or food. And not only do they do this, but do it gladly. They delight in it. It feels good to them. It feels right. The power it gives them, the power that is fed entirely by fear, is worth severing all the invisible bonds that are supposed to link people together in shared human experience.

That, to me, is so much more frightening than any actual eldritch powers or entities the cults are worshipping. That’s the aspect of the story that really gets under my skin (like tiny invasive worms). The limitless cruelty that people willingly choose to enact hits uncomfortably close to home.

The Magnus Archives is, at its heart, a story about the awesome and terrible power of fear. Why people want that power. What they do with it. How much terror they are willing to cause to get it. How much pain they are willing to inflict to keep it. There is so very much power in fear. It is an awesome and terrible power, one that is impossible to escape. Every tragedy in the world, every uncertainty, every choice, every grief, every outburst of anger, all of it is wrapped up in the fact that we live in world full of quite frightening things and have to find a way to understand and deal with them every day. The power of weaponized fear is behind so many political, economic, and religious institutions that it can be hard to discern what is left when you strip that fear away. Authoritarian governments, oppressive religious movements, systems of white supremacy and extreme economic imbalance—all of them rely to some extent on the force of fear to maintain power. Conspiracy theories flourish in environments rich with the fear of being used, lied to, and manipulated. Cults are what you get when you combine all of those fears together into one queasy, gurgling, hypnotic soup.

In the real world, the one we are stuck with, the truly horrifying thing about humans is that we don’t need unfathomable eldritch powers to bring out the worst in us. We do that just fine without any cosmic intervention.

I listen to episodes of The Magnus Archives while I walk beneath clear blue summer skies, on streets lined with palm trees and flowers, rainbow flags and Black Lives Matter signs. My San Diego neighborhood is nothing at all like the musty bookshops and gory abattoirs and cluttered offices that fill the gloomy English settings of the story; I’m not wandering past any mad circuses or books made of human skin or men who keep all of their bones in their hands. It is a credit to the writing, to the entire cast, and especially to director and producer Alexander J. Newall and his production staff that the experience of listening can be so wholly transporting, can let me walk along with my feet in one world and my head in another, can elevate the sound of a single drop of liquid to a menacing thrill or a single gasped word to a heart-breaking tragedy—

Until the episode ends and the archive drops away and I am obliged to remember that, oh, yes, I actually do live in a world overrun by a violence-fetishizing, reality-distorting, fear-mongering death cult that sends unidentified armed operatives to kidnap peaceful protestors off the streets and gleefully sacrifices the lives of children to a plague, all to let a few decaying wannabe god-kings hold onto their wealth and status with a rotting corpse-grip of callousness and cruelty while hundreds of millions of people suffer, and maybe it would be nicer if instead I lived in a world where creepy dudes read books that give them the power to reach inside your chest and rearrange your bones? Just, you know, a little bit better? At least more interesting? Maybe?

Then I go home and laugh hollowly in a dark room while weeping fresh tears into the fur of my mildly concerned pet cat.

Horror is a deeply subjective genre because fear is so intensely personal. This is true even when those fears are vast and unknowable, even when they involve powers and systems bigger than any one person can affect or comprehend. We can’t step outside of our own skin to escape the pain and fear and damaged inflicted upon us, nor can we truly examine our fears from the outside, no matter how hard we might try. Just to be clear, the vast cosmic powers at work in The Magnus Archives are not a metaphor for any particular human system or time or place. In fact, I think the structure and depth of the story resists direct parallels, to its benefit. But a story need not be filled with obvious metaphors to serve as a funhouse mirror by which we can examine many, many troubling aspects of our own reality.

In a recent essay in Nightmare magazine, Brian Evenson writes about teaching horror to university students when the world we live in is an ongoing horror story. He observes,

In the time of a disaster (and perhaps we are always to some degree or other in a time of disaster—it’s just a question of whether we’re insulated from knowing so by our resources or our class or our race), Horror becomes a place to gather and contemplate the disaster spreading out around us.

Horror is replete with people who are alone: the final girl, the lone survivor, the last man on earth, the only sane person in a world gone mad, in the dark, in an empty house, in the cabin in the woods, in a cave filled with impossible echoes, or with indecipherable whispers, or with prayers that nobody will hear. A horror story is a story about breaking an individual’s reality; about the careful slicing away of comfort, safety, trust, connection; about opening an unbridgeable rift between the world before and what it must become; about crossing the line over which nothing can ever be the same.

But the act of creating horror fiction, the act of writing and sharing—that has the opposite effect. When the world we live in is an ongoing horror story full of ravenous fear cults with no goal other than feeding their own sick power, we can still gather and contemplate, we can let the threads of our collective humanity tug at invisible anchor points beneath our skin, and it requires no eldritch forces more mysterious than words and thoughts. This has been true since the first scary story was told around the first campfire…an experience that was, by necessity, shared and communal. We tell our scary stories differently now, with constantly evolving media and formats, but it remains an act of togetherness, a way for storyteller and listener to sit together and carve out a piece of the night.

Kali Wallace studied geology and earned a PhD in geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. She is the author of science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels for children, teens, and adults. Her most recent novel is the science fiction thriller Salvation Day. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Asimov’s, Tor.com, and other speculative fiction magazines. After spending most of her life in Colorado, she now lives in southern California.

citation

Back to the top of the page

9 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.