Nov 9 / John Edward Lawson

Self-Mutilation: Strategies for Terrifying Yourself to Create Successful Horror Poetry

It has been suggested that there is no such thing as horror poetry, but that is like saying there’s no such thing as horror short stories, or horror novels, or horror movies. How do we define horror, anyway? The common answer is that horror is rooted in fear of the unknown. Thus we take refuge in tradition, in our histories, rooting ourselves in that which has come before. Paradoxically, what we have already seen and lived through inspires incomparable dread.  It is here that we can most easily access the poetic in horror, and the horror in poetry, because familiar incidents makes the scariness easily relatable in the short amount of time allowed those composing in verse. 

Autophagia: Use a Personal Experience as the Kernel In the wake of social upheaval and two world wars the public sought visceral authenticity in their reading material. So it was that during the 1950s and 60s confessional poetry rose to prominence in the United States, running parallel to, and sometimes mingling with, the similarly raw Beat movement.  Five decades later the advent of social media has lent to entertainment, and our entertainers, a new thirst for “realness.” Bloggers, content strategists, and YouTube stars cannibalize their own experiences for fun and profit, demonstrating how to repurpose the old “you” as a post providing followers with a snapshot of life. It’s no wonder Instagram is where contemporary poets go to get hot. Observing where the confessional poetry and social media movements overlap we can note their strengths while avoiding their weaknesses. Is it possible to overshare as writers? Always. We can veer off course into what will be negatively received as flogging old grudges, as exhibitionism, or as throwing ourselves a pity party. While art therapy serves a purpose the goal of providing poetry to the marketplace is to entertain, or impart insight — hopefully both at the same time. Using creative approaches to recenter the poem on the needs of the reader, as opposed to the needs of our egos, we can avoid those negative perceptions of our work while simultaneously energizing our writing. 

5 Ways to Use Your Experiences in Horror Poetry Here are five life experiences I have applied to my own writing, with much success despite the discomfort it caused me.

1: Mundane annoyances. We’ve all dealt with people who seem put on this Earth to do nothing but bother us. I created “The Barking Beagle Who So Boisterously Misbehaves” by combining my frustration with the people next door, the risibility of homeowners associations, and the hallucinations of Son of Sam serial killer David Berkowitz.

2: Embarrassing memories. We all remember the moment when, as little children, we wet the bed, didn’t make it to the bathroom in time, or witnessed classmates laughing at a kid who peed themselves while waiting for the hall pass. Given how uncomfortable these memories of failed bodily autonomy make us I crafted “Urophobia” to explore being trapped in a confined space where you stew in your own urine.

3: Childhood deaths. Remember the first time you experienced death? Watching my mother slowly lose herself in the aftermath of stillbirths and infant deaths of my younger siblings set me up for a lifetime of neurosis. I decided to confront that by turning the situation on its head, detailing a woman’s descent into madness as she tries repeatedly to get pregnant in order to alleviate the symptoms of multiple medical conditions she endures, in “The Appalling Intricacies of Hexagons.”

4: Declining health. As we get older we have prolonged illnesses or accidents that leave us wondering: is this it? The big one? Will I fully recover, or is this going to be a permanent physical obstacle? Conversely, in our youth we might help our parents or extended family through their health tribulations. “A Monster Runs Through It” was inspired by the weeks I spent at age 11 swabbing out the 13-inch incision in my mother’s side. I wrote “The Troublesome Amputee” after reactions encountered while my father’s wheelchair around in public in his final days, when he was faced with the prospect of double foot amputation.

5: Fun things. Whether it’s a hobby that helped shape our identity as young adults, or something cherished in childhood, we all have a pure material love. You can mash two or more of them up as I did in “Loveable Lambchop the Mutilator vs. Super Virgin Dragon Girls,” which pitted the iconic puppet against Power Ranger knock-offs. An alternative is to take their innate absurdity to the extreme as I did in “The Educational Value of Professional Wrestling” wherein a young boy uses wrestling moves to fight off demons. These approaches tend to make an impression on audiences who dislike traditional poetry, but you have to follow up with something meaningful in order to make a lasting impression. A counterintuitive tactic that yields surprising results is mining the things that make us fanboys for their overlooked dark potential, as I did in “Marvels of Horror.”

Here’s part 1 of the poem:
The Human Torch
It seemed like a bright idea
at the time — the Olympics were
in a ratings slump, death row was
overcrowded, and all it took
was kerosene and a match to turn
the running of the torch into good TV

If your poetry isn’t achieving the desired impact try applying the above techniques. Yes, they often hurt, but they also yield memorable poems.


And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

John's class, Zombie as the Ethnic Other, is live at the academy.  He's also working on an incredible monster class, so stay tuned!

SFA launched three new classes this week: 
Antagonists of Horror Series: Are Vampires Still Scary? 
How Daydreaming Can Feed A Writer's Soul - this one is FREE!
Creating Academic Presentations: A More Casual Approach

That's how we roll here at SFA
Created with