The Horror Beyond the Fence
I recently looked at the 1955 documentary Night and Fog for a project that I was working on concerning fascism in the twentieth century. Alain Resnais’s watershed documentary opens with an interesting, terrifying juxtaposition. The first shot frames a beautiful landscape—a lush view of the European countryside—before panning down to a stark fence post strung with barbed wire.
As the narrator paints a haunting picture of the close proximity between life and death—between captivity and freedom that was the hallmark of the Nazi concentration camps—the flesh bunched on the back of my neck.
This was the very essence of horror—a hell on earth just a few inches away, on the other side of a fence.
As Michel Bouquet chronicles the construction of the camps, which took place while millions of men, women, and children went about their daily lives—working, attending school, playing in the park—one experiences a mounting sense of dread. These things happened, and one can’t discount them.
One can’t look away, and one shouldn’t look away. Resnais’s film was instrumental in depicting what happened in the camps, and it remains one of the most important artifacts in cinematic history.
Fiction can have a similar effect. I think one of the reasons that dystopian narratives are so popular in mainstream culture is that audiences demand access to the fictional forms of oppression and suppression that Night and Fog makes so abundantly clear. Fiction is, after all, a safe form of access. It’s a portal on the nightmare—a quick glimpse beyond the veil.
And, in most cases, fiction doesn't tread into territories populated by films like Night and Fog, which documents the atrocities of the Holocaust so thoroughly that I repeatedly cringed through the film’s final third. The simple fact is, the terrible things that man actually does (or did) to his fellow man represent the truest aspect of horror. Those of us who write speculative fiction are merely holding up tiny mirrors, and twisting them at different angles to catch a peek at the monster from the safety of our keyboards.
I wrote The Reset with these principles in mind, though I didn't understand that at the time that I was writing it. That’s the nature of fiction—it means nothing to the author in the course of its gestation, and its meaning is dictated in large part by how audiences receive it. Once it’s out there, it’s up to others to make sense of it.
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