From his Vertigo series American Vampire and The Wake to his Image Comics work in Wytches and Undiscovered Country, Eisner Award-winning comic book writer Scott Snyder certainly knows how to craft unsettling, spellbinding horror. From creeping tales of the old world evil resurfacing to menace a new generation to blending horror with science fiction, Snyder has developed an impressive list of popular horror titles, with his deep love of the genre also apparent in his mainstream superhero work with DC.
In an exclusive interview with CBR, Snyder shared his biggest horror influences growing up and how they shaped his own storytelling, both in the horror genre and superhero fare.
I remember you once mentioned that one of the most profound cinematic experiences you’ve had was watching Night of the Living Dead. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.
Scott Snyder: I watched that when I was about ten-years old and what happened was I grew up in New York City in the East 20s — on 23rd Street — and there was a video store on 26th Street and 3rd Avenue called the Video Stop. And they wouldn’t rent R-rated movies to kids but they would deliver them to your house, it was like a neighborhood secret. So we would order everything, any horror/slasher kind of thing we could get in the ’80s, and I had seen all the gore-fest stuff like the Friday the 13th series and all that. And then, one day, we got Night of the Living Dead and I got to watch for myself before my friends and I turned it on and it was in black-and-white. And I remember feeling embarrassed and not telling them I rented it and we rented something else, like Alligator or Squirm about the earthworms — I still remember that one.
At the end, I watched it by myself on the VCR that night and thinking “This is so boring.” And then about five, ten minutes in just getting hooked. I had never been anxious or unsettled by a movie but [I had] nightmares afterward in a really unpleasant way, like, I didn’t understand at that age what was bothering me about it. In retrospect, what I love about that movie and what made me feel that way and helped me defined what the best horror is, for me at least in my opinion, is it, first and foremost, made the people scarier than the monsters. The monsters were terrifying and the situation was terrifying but, ultimately, they were a reflection of the innate nature of human darkness and it made a political statement at the end. It was a relevant, urgent, immediate movie that held up the monsters as a mirror to show who we really are.
And then, secondarily, it dared to go to a bleak place that I never experienced before. I always wanted to be a comic book writer and, even at that age, I kind of thought of myself as a student of story. Every avenue out — Oh, Barbara’s going to get out; no she doesn’t, her brother takes her and drags her away. Well, the young couple is going to get out; no, they die at the gas pump and get burned and eaten. Well, at least the girl is going to heal, they wouldn’t do that; no, the little girl becomes a zombie and murders her mother and father. And then, finally, Ben you think is going to make it out and then he doesn’t. It’s so bleak and so cruel, and it was all in service of prioritizing its message and what it was about. I couldn’t articulate those things at the time but it really got to me to have every expectation upended in service of something really powerful. And finding movies like that has become such a joy, the idea that the best horror takes the things that you find safety in and turn them into things that come after you, in a way, that upends that.
That’s what I think is the big mechanism with Stephen King and what I love most about his work: He has this incredible skill of finding things that are almost totemically American: The classic car, the small American town, your pet dog, the little store on the corner. Whatever it is, he takes it and flips it and becomes the impetus of this thing of fear. That, to me, is Night of the Living Dead and the entire subsequent trilogy which I adore.
As someone who’s written a lot of horror yourself, is horror at its most effective when it doesn’t have a happy ending?
Yeah, I’ve definitely written horror stories that don’t have a happy ending myself though I tend to, especially with kids now, be a lighter than I used to be. Every once and awhile, we go pretty brutal, like, with an arc of American Vampire or an arc of Wytches. Some of my favorite stuff recently like Midsommar, the grey ending of The Babadook, and Martyrs, a lot of horror recently has been going for this cumulative emotional and ideological, destabilizing feeling at the end where it isn’t a happy ending or totally shocking, bleak ending. It’s more of this kind of Rosemary’s Baby where it has this odd, terrifying happy ending, almost like “Welcome to the new normal” which speaks to this moment in a kind of way — not just to coronavirus — but a larger feeling or zeitgeist which I feel is divisiveness and vitriol everywhere: We’re all angry, we’re all fighting with each other, we all have axes to grind. Even the best moments, there’s a feeling like there’s something wrong deep in the substrata of who we are.
It’s filtered through my work the past three or four years. I hope what people see when they read my stuff is that I try to dig into certain themes, questions, fears and hopes that I have for my kids, and this exploration of human nature: Is everything we think of this kind of collectivism and last two thousand years of civilization a wrong turn or a fallacy, are we meant to be much more predatory, animalistic creatures that are self-serving. There’s different explorations of that in Justice League with Lex Luthor or the Batman Who Laughs saying “I am the ultimate, pinnacle evolution of Batman.” Different aspects of that run through all the horror and superhero stuff that I’ve done the last three or four years.
At the end of the Justice League, before they get their second chance, they put their faith in the people and the people let them down.
Yeah, and it’s there in Last Knight on Earth as well — it’s kind of like the same continuity in my mind even if it’s not logistically the same continuity. It’s what I’m afraid of when I look at my kids for now: The people that they should be inspiring them are not and I feel like, at some point, there’s a fear they’re going to turn away from goodness altogether. The loudest voices in the room keep saying “We should just look out for ourselves and be cruel and forget everybody else” and you’re kind of waiting for that to take hold watching a generation of kids come up in a time when winning is more important than greater, longer legacy of winning through smaller, resonant actions pushing things forward in a good way.
To me, that division between self-importance and humility is a big part of the American character, those two poles. That’s what Pearl and Skinner represent in American Vampire; this arc we’re doing now is really all about that. Skinner always wanted to be a larger-than-life legend and famous and he was kind of robbed of that by the way he went out so now he’s looking for that over and over. And Pearl came to Hollywood because all she wanted to be was a small part of something bigger, a story that was being told in great movies to bring those to life and inspire people; not to be noticed, she never cared if her name went up there, but to be part of a masterpiece, a work of art. And, to me, I feel like those are diametrically opposed poles of American character, like, “Me! This is my experience! Give me that!” and then the incredibly generous sense of community and legacy and all part of one story. Those things run through everything I’m doing.
You’re a father times three now and the boys are getting older. If you had approached it now, would you have a story like Severed in you?
Oh, I don’t know. I think about Severed a lot. Severed is a book we came up with before my first son was born. It was a story I was working on when I was a budding writer. I mean, it was really early. I sort of started to work on that while I was in graduate school and it was more about intellectual interests. It was about a moment in time that’s always fascinated me, that moment at the end of World War I, 1916-1920, that lead-up to the Roaring Twenties. It was this burst of American ingenuity, you’d see all these new inventions everywhere: The automobile is becoming more prevalent, telephones, electric lighting in houses, neon, all one right after another making life better. And one of those things I also loved the development that you travel anywhere, you could get in a car and change yourself. There was this promise that you could renew who you were by not being stuck in the same place, like, Europe where you had to live there generationally.
That story was kind of an exploration of the best and worst of that: This young, spirited kid that wants to get out there, make a name for himself and change who he is and, then, the demon of the rails that preys on that whole aspect of the American character — and he’s based off a real guy, Albert Fish, in a way. So it was borne from intellectual interests rather than emotional interests so I don’t know if I could do that story today, but I like to think I can go as dark as that. The current arc of Wytches that me and Jock are working on goes pretty dark, I can say that.
What’s going with horror now keeps you inspired?
There’s so much good horror. There’s things from the past that are being revisited and redone in amazing ways like The Haunting of Hill House and The Outsider. There’s also really interesting original films too like Midsommar, The Babadook and Hereditary, all these A24 and Blumhouse films that keep pushing the envelope like Get Out. All the interesting horror feels like they’re speaking to something in the zeitgeist right now instead of being like “Hey, this is a scary monster, this is a serial killer.” They feel like they’re being grown organically out of the deeper fears that exist at this moment because of the ways that we’re failing ourselves and each other. And there’s a deeper, darker 1970s feeling to it, in my opinion; the late 1960s, 1970s loss of optimism.
The hangover after the party.
Yeah, exactly, the kind of dark turn by Hunter S. Thompson, the death spiral away from the party. And I feel like that’s baked into a lot of horror right now. Modern horror is starting to go really dark, really personal and really intimate about a character and that is exciting. Right now I hope to see people making things that are genuinely scary but built on our own deeply individualized fears in this moment because it is a terrifying moment and I think there are a lot of people who are like “We should just do happy stories right now” and I feel like the opposite.
Horror, for me, always gave me a way of dealing with my own fears and anxieties. I was an anxious kid and was on medication from teenage years to now for anxiety and depression. But what I love about horror is it gave me a way to be scared in a safe way, even when it ended bleakly, it made me address these fears and work through them in certain ways. That’s what I think the beauty of horror is, in some ways: Done right, the monster is an extension of the things that we’re scared about ourselves and the world at large. I know people approach it that way as a vehicle to travel through their own concerns and hopes.
To close this out, is there any update on the Wytches and Undiscovered Country adaptations?
Yeah! With Undiscovered Country, we’re working on the screenplay right now for New Republic. We have about another four weeks before we hand in the draft so it’s commenced and it’s all good. And Wytches is definitely still in development too.
Acclaimed comics writer Scott Snyder shares his biggest horror influences and how they've shaped his own storytelling.