Ghost stories and social prisons

Not turning around when you suspect there is a monster right behind you is the best way to not die in a horror movie. Just keep looking ahead. Monsters can’t attack if you don’t look at them. They’ll just stand there, making frustrated noises.

Jokes apart, horror and ghost stories have kind of an anti-curiosity message. Don’t go to THAT room. Don’t open THAT door. Bad things happen to those who go THAT way. It’s all meant to discourage exploration. The earliest horror stories come from a time when danger was real.

Those who wandered into the forest in the dead of the night never came back. Those who didn’t listen to their experienced elders paid the price. Horror started out as a defence mechanism and later coalesced into a cultural outlook. Most religions have major do’s and don'ts. And the don'ts often only apply to certain categories of people. If you are a woman, don’t go out after sundown. If you are a Muslim, don’t go to certain areas. Lovecraft Country did a great job of bringing to life the don'ts that apply to Black people.

A certain kind of science fiction, which has exploration as a fundamental motif, runs counter to this horror thinking. It says that a fundamental prerequisite of being human is curiosity. Such stories reward those who open THAT door or go to places no one has gone before.

Neither outlook is wrong per se. Unbridled “exploration” creates imperialism and a disrespect for those who are behind closed doors. Unthinking conservatism makes us frogs in the well, unwilling to open any doors at all. At the end of the day, these are all stories that we made. The way out, I think, might involve conscious application of the two impulses I am talking about.

Fear is inescapable. So is the urge to explore. But what we fear and what we choose to explore can perhaps be chosen to make sure they don’t end up contributing to cultures of exclusion and oppression.

Because while the fear of leaving home after dark may be reinforcing toxic cultural habits, a fear of greed is a good thing to write stories about. Stories that may perhaps be read by those who intend to to become entrepreneurs some day. While fear of opening doors may end up reinforcing hegemonies, fear of inequality and poverty is a good thing to write stories about. Stories that may perhaps be read by those who will make laws one day.

Similarly, while “exploration” with the intention of colonising another planet may support imperialism, exploration as a weapon in the hands of marginalised people can be a good thing. A woman exploring the world outside of the “home” she has been imprisoned in her whole life is definitely a good thing to write about. A Dalit person getting to explore social levels that no one from his background has explored before is also a good way to write exploratory stories.

Horror and Science Fiction are both fantasy. When we speculate about other realities, we can punch upwards. The thing we are asking people to fear - should it be feared? Or is there a more virtuous fear out there we can make our story’s foundation?

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