Don't Go in the Barn
Bad Places and Bad Decisions in Horror
If you enjoy books or movies in the horror genre, you’ve likely encountered this criticism whenever the subject of your fandom comes up in conversation.
“Well, I don’t like horror because it’s predicated on characters making bad decisions.”
As if this armchair critic has never made a bad decision in their life. Right, pal. I’m sure you’ve never slept with someone you knew was trouble. Drove twenty miles over the speed limit. Bought weed from that sketchy guy behind the Texaco. Backtalked a police officer. Started a fight you knew you couldn’t win. Called into work because you forgot to request off for a Van Halen concert.
Here’s the thing: people make bad decisions. And often!
They usually have a reason for it. Sometimes, going to camp at Crystal Lake sounds like a good idea because camping is fun, and maybe that girl you like is going to be there, and maybe you’ll get to hang out with the guy who always gets the good drugs, and, besides, undead serial killers aren’t real (that’s just silly). Or sometimes, you’re worried about your friend who went camping in the woods last weekend and never came back and you don’t trust the police and maybe Jason fucking Voorhees is real, but it’s worth the risk because you want to see if your friend is okay or at least have closure if they are dead.
Or maybe you’re a daredevil. Maybe you’re reasonably sure Jason did kill your friend, and now you want revenge. Maybe you’re a cop following up on a lead.
Maybe you just don’t know the risks. Or maybe you do and just don’t care (or perhaps, you believe that of course nothing bad will happen to you, Mr. Main Character).
Besides, who’s going to believe the unhinged ramblings about a death curse by some roadside hobo? Whether on the streets or online, crazy people say all sorts of shit. No well-adjusted person takes any of it to heart.
People make bad decisions all the time for various reasons. Sometimes, these are good reasons. Other times, it’s just a lapse in judgement or a case of someone testing their boundaries (there’s a reason so many horror movies involve teenagers).
Now, listen, I don’t think the horror genre is above criticism. It’s entirely possible that this imagined armchair critic who lives in my head saw a few horror movies or read a few horror novels where the reasons for the characters’ bad decisions were not made clear enough by the writers. Entirely possible. I’ve read and watched some real stinkers. It’s also possible that this person is just out of touch, lacking self-awareness, or has simply forgotten what it’s like to be a young person testing their boundaries.
I don’t know, I’m not a psychologist.
The idea of a bad place, somewhere people shouldn’t go but nonetheless do, is what kicked off the first draft of Barn Door to Hell this past April. I’m halfway through the revision/rewrite/whatever. Hopefully, I’ll release the book this next April on my 40th birthday, a little over a year after I started the project.
So-called “bad places” have always intrigued me. I first encountered this concept in the real world when I was in third grade. There was this canyon behind my house. I used to go back there with my parents, brother, and dogs. We’d take long walks down its crooked, rocky trails and look for gophers and snakes. A family of coyotes lived in a small cave on one of the hills. There was this big ravine that cut through the center of the canyon, and it was littered with all sorts of shit, including a rusted-out car frame. One specific patch of the canyon was considerably greener than the rest of it, likely because it was one of the only spots where water regularly collected. I called it The Great Valley after the dinosaur paradise from The Land Before Time (but seriously, fuck that sad movie).
One year, there was this big fire that reduced most of the foliage to ash and blackened tree skeletons. Because this was Southern California, the fire-damage remained for longer than it would have in a place that got more rain.
The canyon didn’t become a bad place until third grade. Kids from school made up stories about it. They called the ravine Dead Man’s Ditch because a Dead Man lived down there, and the entire canyon was his hunting ground. Some said this character was one of the Undead, a super zombie like Jason Voorhees. Others claimed he was some drug-addled war veteran. I imagined him as not a man at all, but as some cosmic creature only playing at being a man (because of course I did). I mean, how else could you explain how he could tunnel underground, use telekinetic abilities, and change into a coyote?
One night, the canyon was full of cops. A circling helicopter shined spotlight down on the area. We never found out what the police were doing down there, but my brother and I were utterly convinced they were searching for the Dead Man.
Kids are funny like that.
As years went by, and I stopped believing the stories about Dead Man’s Ditch, I still avoided the place because of some lingering superstition. But one afternoon, my dogs got loose. My brother and I were the only ones home, so we didn’t have any choice but to go into the bad place after them. Even if canyon-dwelling dead men existed, that was a worthy reason for a bad decision, no?
The canyon between my house and the elementary school isn’t the only “bad place” I’ve encountered throughout my life. It was the first, though, and firsts have a tendency to stick with you. One day I’ll write a proper story about it.
Happy New Year, monsters.
Until next time…