One of the philosophical challenges of horror fiction, which I shall call a story with an antagonist monster whose primary objective is to kill everyone, is that if death is not not the worst possible outcome, the story has no meaning. A friend told me a story once about a German friend of his. This man’s father had been a guard at Auschwitz. In fact, his father’s job had been to oversee the Jews as they were entering the gas chambers. He noticed that many of the prisoners would draw butterflies on the wall before entering the showers. He asked the prisoners why they did this, but they refused to tell him. Finally, one old man explained:

“When we were in the ghettos we were like caterpillars crawling through the dirt; when we came to the camps, we were imprisoned as if in a cocoon; but when we go in there, into the showers, we will be free.”

Prior to this moment, he, the guard, had believed the story his superiors had told him: that Jews weren’t human. It is hard to imagine believing such a thing, believing that someone who looks like you and even speaks your language is not human, but this is what he believed, this is why he could usher these people into the gas chambers. But after hearing this story he awoke from the nightmare he had come to believe, and he could not continue his job.

I don’t know what became of this man. I don’t know how the rest of his time at Auschwitz was spent. He, of course, is the monster in most stories. What is a monster but that which can kill us without feeling? And yet what made him monstrous was his belief that a man or a woman or a child could be less than human. And what becomes of me, even here at my desk, if I make him a monster, and if I wish death for him as his punishment?

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. "A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.

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