As I buckled my preschooler into his car seat, we had a brief conversation:
Him: When Uncle J— comes back, I want him to sit next to me in the back.
Me: Well, sure, but that’s not going to be for some time. He lives really far away, you know.
Him: Is Uncle J— yours father?
Me: No, kiddo. My father is dead. Uncle J— is my brother.
At this point, his eyes filled with tears. He’s familiar with the concept of death as a practical, if not philosophical matter: we had two cats, and one of them died of heart disease some months ago, so he knows that death is a permanent state. I didn’t feel good about telling him about my father’s death, but it’s something we’ve discussed before. It often takes several conversations for certain concepts to sink in. The tears he shed over his grandfather suggest that he got it this time. This time, it made sense.
Him: Yours father died?
Me: Yes, kiddo. He was very, very sick, and he died a few years ago, when you were a baby.
Him: *crying now*: Did I sit on his lap?
Me: Yes you did. I have a picture of it. He really liked you, kiddo. It’s okay to be sad about it.
I hugged him in the car seat, wiped off his face, and he was fine by the time I fastened my own seat belt. His resilience is an enviable thing.
Death is an aspect of human experience like any other, but too much emphasis on it is unhealthy, like an obsession with certain bodily functions. So my little boy knows about it. As someone who reads, watches, and writes horror, I consider it in ways that few people do as a matter of course. After all, death is one of horror’s most central themes.
I write about death and unspeakable horrors, but you wouldn’t know it to look at me. When I worked in the publishing industry, learning about self-defense, combat shooting, knife fighting, and similar subjects, one topic that came up from the more competent instructors was something called the Gray Man concept. The best way to win a fight is to not be there when it happens: to be aware and avoidant. A Gray Man doesn’t wear BDUs and an NRA Life Member T-shirt to go to the 7-11. He carries, but he blends in. He trains in personal defense techniques but avoids fights. He’s unremarkable. You just look past him. That’s the Gray Man.
Many horror fans aren’t Gray Men (or Gray Women). You know it to look at them. Goths and metalheads, two subcultures that typically embrace the horror genre, select their appearances so that you know what they’re into. I attach no judgment to this: people like what they like and do what they do and that’s just fine. It’s reasonable to make assumptions about a Goth’s interest based on his appearance, as much as we’re told to ignore judgment based upon experience and refuse to judge a book by its cover.
What of the Gray Man of horror, then? How much horror can one consume without it coming out in the pores? In large part, I suspect horror fans all come to the party for different reasons. Some of us enjoy the vicarious thrill of terrible danger. Others groove on how justice is so often meted out to the deserving in most horror stories (or, conversely, how the bad guy sometimes wins). And yet others really like death.
What do I like about horror? I’m a Gray Man. You’ll never know until I tell you.