Symbols: the gloves we use to pat horror. I want to know when it is that we're first able to grasp symbols. Not when we first try to decipher them, many of us don't even get around to that – but when they begin to appear as substitutes for things that are too hairy to touch: insignificance, victimhood, abandonment – ultimately death and decay.
I had a dream when I was five, one of those dreams that never goes away; a hyperreal experience with more feeling and texture than life. In the dream I had just climbed into a car after a family picnic. My mother was driving. As I settled in the back I realised my father wasn't there. Through the rear window I could see a wooded glen where we had been, and beside it a steep rock face with a cave entrance. I saw broad stone stairs spiralling up into the dark of the cave. And for an instant I saw my father's heel vanishing up them. Then my mother started the car and began to pull away. I reminded her that we had left my father behind but she ignored me and drove on. And the overwhelming legacy of the dream was a feeling of helplessness and loss.
As the clearing and the cave fell into the distance I thought I saw a rag doll flung limply down the stairs where he had been. But I couldn't be sure. And to this day I can't be sure. What I can be sure of is that those images set processes moving which had to do with fear and darkness and which never went away. It doesn't matter what they meant; the feelings had their own intelligence and were clear. It wasn't enough to write them off as a dream, they were too concrete; whether or not they had meaning, they came full of a sense that they were not only meaningful but crucial.
From the Bogey Man to the Grim Reaper, life is clearly more comfortable when we don't address darkness point-blank. Perhaps that subconscious theatre is active from birth, maybe it even springs from that speechlessness, that powerlessness to act. I say subconscious because it seems that symbols are native to dreams. I don't feel they're a learned response. Perhaps they live in many creatures, focusing perceptions of threat; as if we're born with a flock of dormant hens inside which react to the growing dark on our behalf. We recognise them without identifying what darkness set them off; so when they scatter we just know it's dark, and shudder.
And perhaps then as artists some of us spend a life painting hens instead of dark. A hooded man with a scythe becomes poetry. I was reminded not long ago that the Grim Reaper is a relatively recent symbol. Before him the most common symbol for death was a woman. In Europe she would arrive for a dance, and we would "dance with death". I also saw an old painting depicting soap bubbles rising into the dark behind a skull. A perfect symbol: some bubbles would grow big, some would fly high, some would float to the ground – but all would pop and not a thing in their natures could tell us when.
This all came to mind because art and literature deal with what's beneath, they run on symbols. And I came to wonder if that first memorable dream wasn't a first literary experience. If maybe the same processes involved in the dream were behind the nature of writing. As it is, no matter how self-consciously I write, I always find symbols and ironies creeping into the work by themselves, many beyond my understanding. And yet they make their own sense, and paint feelings in keeping with the life of the narrative. They're organic, beyond calculation and craft, but are somehow central to the experience being written. Following from this I wondered if the genre of horror in its classical form wasn't the purest literary approach, or at least the boldest; that is, the one sailing closest to the darkness we use symbols to avoid.
As applied symbols go, many acknowledge that Godzilla was symbolic of Japan's wartime terror; less remember that in its original form the monster Gojira was nuclear-powered, taking its strength from atomic tests in the Pacific and unleashing this power upon the people of Japan. Conceived in the period between the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the deployment of the more lethal hydrogen bomb, the film was the first of many monster films through which the Japanese came to touch and purge their fears of nuclear annihilation.
Perhaps similarly, in a tiny way, I advanced to the next boot camp of symbols some four years after my dream. It involved my first dose of mindless fear – that is groundless, illogical terror – which arose from watching my first Hammer film: Dracula, with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Obviously a man running around a castle biting people and drinking blood is scary to any nine-year-old; but the film stirred much more in me than that. I can barely describe how powerful it was, I was drunk with it for years.
The symbols were just so raw, so well defined – and there were so many of them. A dead man lusting to suckle blood from a live young woman's neck is as blunt and unequivocal a thing as I have ever seen. That he lives in a coffin, rides in a hearse and requires a battle of wills to be put down is for me nothing less than our struggle to defeat the dark self. The more I look at it the plainer it becomes: the film was a crash course in the power of symbols and darkness.
Enough art deals with death and sex that for me those twin demons may well underpin all subconscious life. And few forms go as straight to the heart of them as Horror. As to whether symbols have applied meaning, as to whether they assuage, purge or prepare us for anything, it remains arguable. Maybe the key lies in our sensitivity to them. But the more you notice them, the stronger they get.
Many years after this inner life began, I was again in a car driven by my mother. My father was terminally ill. The family had reached that stage in his care where it saw fit to take a break and go about other business. I was discomfited. We didn't see him that day. We left him alone living hours we could never replace. It felt wrong. As our car pulled away from traffic lights I realised that beside me, rising in a dark face, was the hospital where my father lay dying. I looked back, inwardly howling as I watched it recede. Knowing with every fibre that I'd done it before.
DBC Pierre is the author of 'Breakfast with the Borgias' published on 31 July (Hammer Books, £9.99).Reuse content