What do we do when a thing we love turns out to have been authored by someone who sucks big time? We kill the author! Metaphorically. Nowadays, death of the author is a response to the trend of authors turning out to be The WorstTM, a framework of thinking that lets people still consume the products of people they think are awful. The general idea is to treat the work as if it exists in a vacuum, ignoring the author completely. 

If you’ve ever heard the phrase “Hatsune Miku created ‘Minecraft,’” that’s an example of death of the author. The original developer of “Minecraft” turned out to be a bigoted QAnon weirdo, but everyone still loves “Minecraft,” so now no one acknowledges his contributions. Death of the author is useful for examining the impact of popular works without praising people who are objectively the worst, and it’s also really tempting! It’s tempting to be able to read and watch things we love without worrying about who they benefit. Effective too – when was the last time anyone actually mentioned Notch while talking about “Minecraft?” It’s also become more relevant as time passes. The moral standards of society improve, but the actions of authors before us remain the same. It’s also become increasingly easy for anyone, including creators, to fall down the alt-right pipeline, transforming them into a disgrace to their still-loved creation.

At least, it’s effective with exceptions. One big exception is horror media. Horror is based on the most accessible of human emotions: fear. Fear is a universal constant. It’s theorized to be the first emotion to develop, and one of the only emotions shared by every organism that has a brain more complicated than a horseshoe crab’s. Fear keeps us alive. That’s why one of the most popular genres is horror: it speaks to a universal emotion. The driving force behind that emotion, however, is personal as hell. Sure, there are obvious fears – spiders, heights, a murderer running at you with a knife. But the real shit? The horror that stays with you? That horror is deeply, aggressively personal in a way that cannot be separated from its writer.

Look at H.P. Lovecraft. Maybe you’ve heard someone describe capitalism’s inescapable power as ‘Lovecraftian.’ Maybe you’re a scholar who enjoys classic horror. Maybe you saw an iFunny meme in 2016 telling you to look up his cat’s name. What you need to know is he was an incredibly bigoted pathetic loser. He grew up in the countryside with parents who were way too broke to be as classist as they were. He tried education but considered himself too sickly for math, which later gave him a fear of it. He was, in his own words, “prey to intense headaches, insomnia, and general nervous weakness which prevents [his] continuous application to any thing.” Which – me too, but I still got into college. His family’s destitution eventually forced him to live in a poorer part of New York City, exposing him to all of his least favorite things: immigrants, poor people, crowds, and air conditioning (yes, air conditioning).

These fears sometimes crop up in his writing in obnoxiously obvious ways. “Cold Air” is literally a story about a guy living in a broke, immigrant-filled apartment and the evils of air conditioning. Lovecraft was also a notorious eugenicist, which is obvious in works like “The Dunwich Horror” where a poor albino woman gives birth to a pair of demonic twins, one of which grows larger than a barn and begins invisibly destroying a village, making Lovecraft one of the OG kaiju authors. “Call of Cthulhu” has a scene that lists out all the races of the (all non-white) devil-worshipping cultists found trying to sacrifice white women and children. Additionally, in the same book, several sailors are driven mad by the “non-Euclidean geometry” of the sunken city they’ve found. Too sickly for math, indeed.

Not all of his fears influenced his writing in such blatant ways, however. Lovecraft grew up in the countryside, and being forced from a family estate to a tiny apartment made him deeply agoraphobic — irrationally afraid of open spaces and large crowds — filling him with a sense of smallness. Entirely coincidentally, Lovecraft’s fiction is filled with vast, unknowable gods that dwarf all of humanity. In Lovecraft’s universe, the world is filled with concepts so massive and malicious they defy description. One of the most common devices he uses in his work is the idea that a given horror is too terrifying to describe, letting the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks. That’s what Lovecraft’s life was like – a paralyzing fear of the different and the unknown that caused him to fill in those gaps with rot, decay, and decline. 

We can’t apply the death of the author framework to Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s mythos couldn’t have been written by anyone but a pathetic, bigoted little worm, because those same fears are what he drew on to create the work. We cannot examine it in a vacuum, and the Cthulhu mythos cannot be separated from Lovecraft’s life. It’s better when we examine it as an expression of how someone deeply riddled with fear saw the world. I’m not saying these works justify his bigotry. My point is that when we take on a death of the author viewpoint, the work becomes worse because it reduces a raw expression of how paranoia colors the world into an aesthetic. Cthulhu is a lot scarier when he’s an avatar of Lovecraft’s fear of all the rotted, slimy things at the edges of his life rather than when he’s a big guy with a tentacle face.

Lovecraft isn’t the only horror author whose works are shaped by personal fears, and those personal fears aren’t always as objectively shitty as ‘the poors,’ or ‘science.’ Junji Ito’s “Tomie” was inspired by the death of his classmate, and Ito’s resulting questions of how a person could just disappear from the Earth, never to be seen again. “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison is rooted in his aggressive anti-war beliefs. These authors may not be problematic enough to necessitate taking the death of the author approach, but if we do, they lose value. Death of the author isn’t necessarily considered the best way to read media in any genre, but it’s even less useful when we read horror. The framework is designed to help reconcile bigotry with art, but in horror, the art is fear. 

Horror as an art form is supposed to make you afraid as a form of catharsis. You consume it, you fear it, and then you rest easy. It is the job of a horror author to give you that fear, to make their fears relatable enough to give you that catharsis. Bigotry is a form of fear, so when bigoted horror authors attempt to translate their own fears into their media, bigotry shows up in it. With other genres, bigotry can fly under the radar, because fear isn’t the experience that the author wants to communicate to the reader. Horror is just a very special snowflake.

Should we leave these works behind? No. We can and should still read these works, especially because a lot of them are well-written and culturally relevant. But they’re important to read critically, especially when the author is sketchy as hell. Horror comes from personal fears, and when those fears are bigoted, it shows. By analyzing these biases and reading with them in mind, we can sometimes get a more interesting reading, and almost always a better one.