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Let’s be proud of our creaky, spook herruage



That’s good – not simply as it gives our country depth and texture, some contours of light and shade in how the world perceives us; it’s also good as, if used correctly, horror is a boon to the human soul. We benefit from our history and culture of spooky legends and gothic story-telling, not just in terms of the tourist dollars it lures, but personally, from a psychological perspective.

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Forgive me getting all literary-theory here (I can’t help it, I’ve written novels heavy on horror), but we’ve known that fear is good for you since the days of the ancient Greeks. The big fella himself, Aristotle – said to be the last person on Earth who knew everything there was to know – wrote in his Poetics about “catharsis”.

If you studied Shakespeare’s tragedies at school you’ll know how catharsis work: being made to experience emotions like terror and grief through drama purges those self-same feelings. You walk out of the theatre – or cinema – having overcome fear. Crucially, you’re psychologically better off.

Now, that doesn’t mean a constant diet of horror movies is wise. Like anything, too much is bad. Watch only horror movies and you’ll probably find yourself rather depressed. But a few frights every week is what the doctor ordered, just like a few good laughs. We need to feel to be alive, after all.

Scotland’s horror credentials are getting a wee burnish, I’m pleased to say. The low-budget indie production company Hex Studios in Fife (what a cracking brand name) looks to be on the verge of reviving (reanimating?) one of the most famous names in horror: Amicus Studios.

Now, if, like me, you grew up in the 1970s watching the celebrated Horror Double Bill on the BBC every Saturday night, the word “Amicus” will give you a wonderful, shiversome frisson of fear and anticipation. Amicus was the crazy twin of Hammer Films. It produced some of the best portmanteau horror movies in cinema history – those films with a collection of creepy tales strung together within an even creepier framing story. I mean, who wouldn’t want to find out what’s inside Dr Terror’s House of Horrors. I certainly would. Until Amicus shut up shop, they freaked Britain out with the likes of The House That Dripped Blood, Tales from the Crypt, Asylum, The Beast Must Die, and I Monster.

Can there be a better place on Earth than Scotland for Amicus to return from the grave? This country helped build the gothic genre. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg, from 1824, has been described as the “most convincing representation of the power of evil in literature”. And then comes Robert Louis Stevenson with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – as important to horror as Dracula or Frankenstein. Fans will note that although the novel is set in London, the description of the city terrorised by Hyde is unmistakably Edinburgh in all its gothic glory.

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And listen, we can’t forget you know who: Old Nessie herself. From the 1930s, that legend has dominated modern folklore. Nessie features in one of Scotland’s founding myths, when St Columba confronts the beastie as he brings Christianity to pagan Picts. Nessie still dominates the dark side of popular imagination today. Next weekend, hundreds of Nessie obsessives will take part in the biggest hunt ever to locate her. To be honest, we should put Nessie on our flag, like the Welsh did with their cool dragon.

Nessie symbolises Scotland’s wild, savage side. We may have forged the Enlightenment but this is a rugged, mysterious country too. Our nation isn’t just built on logic and industry, Scotland has in its soul an at-times dangerous romanticism, as well as dark passions which can break out into frightening acts. We did murder the most “witches” (aka innocent women, and some innocent men too) proportionally of any nation.

Others also mythologise us, often using myth and horror to express their fears or confusions about Scotland. The legend of the cannibal Sawney Bean, the prototype serial killer in the vein of Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, was an English concoction possibly cooked up (forgive the intentional pun) to channel fear of Scotland around the time of the Jacobite risings.

Ireland is perhaps the only other country which can give Scotland a run for its money over ghosts and goblins. We’ve given the world Selkies and Brownies, Kelpies and so many White Ladies and Headless Horsemen that there’s a cottage industry on Scottish ghosts within publishing.

Read more: Why horror is good for you

That’s why Scotland figures so heavily in the gothic and horror genres. Ask any aficionado “what’s the best British horror movie?” and you’ll likely hear The Wicker Man – a film that again plays with the notion of Scotland as strange and different, wild and incomprehensible. One of the best actors in horror today is Scotland’s Pollyanna McIntosh, the 21st century’s Scream Queen who helmed dark delights like The Woman (watch it, it’s brilliant).

We’re a country of opposites: both thoroughly urban and quintessentially rural simultaneously. Opposites rub up against each other, creating little bubbles of tension that often appear in culture – in movies and literature – as the dark, the strange. Horror itself mostly thrives in moments of social tension: the 1930s amid the Great Depression, the 1950s amid Cold War paranoia, and the 1970s amid political upheaval and changing moral values.

For sure, the 2020s are nothing if not a time of social tension. So can there be a better site for the new Amicus studios than right slap-bang in the heart of this weird, wonderful country of ours? I await their first offering with barely concealed dread and delight.

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