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WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM GRIEF IN HORROR Panel Report, 2024 Virtual Stoker


By Lee Murray

Trigger Warning: This article addresses issues of grief, loss, and mental health.

Moderated with compassion by Mo Moshaty, an author-producer with experience working closely with death doulas, the panel commenced with a round-robin of introductions, including the panellists’ relevant work, and also their particular interest in the topic of grief horror. 

Panellists included Mark Mathews, Clay McLeod Chapman, Nat Cassidy, Katherine (Kat) Silva, Ally Malinenko, and Laura Keating.

From the opening comments, it was clear that this was going to be a confronting and also humbling session, with panellists sharing their own experiences of trauma and grief, with their specific experiences discussed in more detail over the course of the panel. 

Moshaty kicked off the discussion by stating that grief, as a universal emotion, touches everyone in society, so it follows that we would want to represent grief in our horror literature. Mark Matthews and Nat Cassidy agreed that horror is a genre that is grounded in grief. Clay McLeod Chapman admitted to feeling inspired and intimidated to talk frankly about the topic, but also that he expected the discussion to be eye-opening and cathartic. He was especially interested in how we move through grief while also tackling it in our work. 

Moshaty called for a definition of ‘grief in horror’ or ‘grief horror’. Did grief equate to the ‘elevated horror’ described in film contexts? 

Cassidy claimed that the latest trend in grief horror is for narratives in which the protagonist goes through some trauma that will either be subverted, or result in some form of catharsis, by the conclusion of the piece. “Grief is manifested somehow in the story and the character must transcend or make peace with that grief as a central part of the story,” he said. Moshaty agreed in essence with his definition, however she noted that grief may not always be resolved. 

Moshaty then asked that panellists talk about the exploration of grief in their own stories.

Laura Keating said when working on her book, Agony’s Lodestone, which was written post-loss, she didn’t realise she was writing grief horror until a second loss occurred during the editing phase. 

Ally Malinenko also experienced this compounded grief, when her father, and later her mother passed away. When the second loss came, Malinenko said the grief was especially raw. She might have shied away from addressing the losses, but she realised that her middle grade readers also experience grief and she wanted to give them the language to talk about their pain through story. “Kids don’t have a smaller range of emotions than adults,” she said. “I wanted to give them a story they can identify with / see themselves in because adults don’t talk about death with kids.” Malinenko acknowledged that she isn’t sure how her sisters will respond to her work, since her experience of grief is her own.

Chapman said there were two factors that inspired his novel Ghost Eaters: the first was an unproduced Hollywood screenplay which included the concept of a ‘haunted drug’ and the second was the loss from overdose of a close friend from school and college. By the time his friend passed away, Chapman had already made changes to his own lifestyle, so he suffered from survivor guilt, in part of his own making and in part from his former circle of friends. Chapman felt that his ‘skin in the game’ was to take that loss, and the “I should have been there for him’ guilt and to filter it into a supernatural narrative. However, Chapman pointed out that the narrative reflects his own means of processing the grief and that other people who also shared that grief might have processed it in different ways, some hinting that Chapman exploited the trauma for the story. 

Moshaty agreed that shame is a key aspect of grief horror since we all want to save someone. She shared a story of the small-town loss of a fourteen-year-old school friend to a car accident where it seemed everyone in town felt some level of blame / shame for not acting. 

Keating said that the losses mentioned earlier in the panel had been miscarriages; and it was her was guilt and anxiety rather than shame that had kept her from specifying that earlier. She went on to say that guilt is an extremely isolating experience. She said that in the same way horror is a cabin in the woods or being stranded on a spaceship; in grief horror you are alone with the monster. Matthews took this notion a step further, giving the example of the film Candyman where no one believes the protagonist, making them even more isolated. “Bones heal, but grief never fully heals. The monster never dies,” he said. 

Moshaty reminded panellists of how a person / character can be bounced around the Kübler-Ross (On Death and Dying, 1969) stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. She noted that while they may never get over grief, the protagonist is trying to maintain their emotional wellbeing while working through these stages. Some may talk, others might not, and some may become dissociative. 

Silva said her own grief process is still evolving. She said she has experienced a lot of grief and her family response to it is stoic: they don’t like to discuss or share their experiences. She spoke of an acquaintance from her freshman year who died by suicide and her feelings were around missing out and missed opportunities. 

“Working through those painful times, how were you kind to yourself?” Moshaty asked. 

Silva said her most recent event occurred last year, just before a book release date, and she disassociated / tried to ignore the pain by working herself to the bone. Later, she realised she needed to address the grief, not ignore it, so she wrote Lost Oblivion. 

Cassidy said that he tends to overshare and trauma dump (single mom with progressive MS passed away, then later, in the same twelve-month span, he suffered the deaths of his wife’s mother, two pets, and his father, after which his wife was bedridden for eighteen months). He said this slew of upset and trauma ‘felt like a kindness—a gift from the universe’, as if he were ‘contracted to write these stories: Mary (about his mom) / Nestlings (about his wife). His forthcoming work is about his dad and involves shapeshifters, “because that is what grief is,” Cassidy claims. His stories are lecture notes on grief, he said. The works are so embedded in Cassidy’s life experience that he admitted to taking a poor review extremely personally. 

Moshaty agreed that in the trauma Olympics, everyone believes they feel more. She noted that death has a ripple effect, since the loss of someone can correspond to a loss of self-identity. When you lose your tether you ask, who am I without this person?  

Moshaty went on to ask Mark Matthews how to steer away from derogatory tropes when writing grief horror. 

Matthews recommended showing empathy for the character. He quoted author Joe Hill, who once said, “Horror is not about extreme sadism; it’s about extreme empathy.”

When asked if panellists had experienced any unexpected reactions from readers, Cassidy said people had shown gratitude that his book(s) depicts something people haven’t seen before. Negative responses tend to describe depressive characters as ‘unlikable’ which he accepts as a badge of honour, since grief is an unlikable position to be in. 

Mathews spoke about a 1-star review of his book On the Lips of Children, which declared the writer must be a psychopath and so is everyone who likes this book. In the story, the protagonist runs a marathon to prove himself worthy of his wife, only he is hunted down and tortured. Matthews’ intent was to save the character from prolonged torture and suffering, the book written out of survivor’s guilt after his brother passed away through addiction, including leaving Matthews with the responsibility of removing his brother from life support. Matthews describes how he is still processing different aspects of this grief in various narratives. He said writing about it gives him something to hold on to. 

Moshaty describes a similar experience around the loss of a long-time guitarist friend, and their final conversation, an argument, which she has written into a story. However, as part of her processing, she has given the story a different outcome. She said it can be a gift to shape the narrative in the way we want. 

Chapman said he hadn’t expected people (including parents who have lost their children) to reach out to share their own stories and have a human-to-human connection with him, which was “the royalty that doesn’t go into the bank account’. However he noted that there was a responsibility associated with holding someone’s space in that way. Malinenko summed up that kind of shared connection as, “I humaned well. I get it.” 

For her final question, Moshaty asked panellists what their opinion was on how grief horror literature can contribute to a larger conversation about grief, its healing and acceptance, and the human condition as a whole.

Malinenko said it was important to have honest conversation about grief and not simply gloss over it. After writing The Appearing House, a work for children based on her own experience of surviving cancer, she received a lot of push-back around delivering hard topics for young readers. However, Malinenko said children need to know someone is listening and someone understands. “No one talks about it; I wanted to fill the space,” she said. 

Providing some context to the term ‘the human condition’, Keating observed that grief horror has exploded since the pandemic (where millions of people died / people are still ill / and relationships changed). “Internationally, there is a grieving process,” she said. “Horror helps us to focus a lens on societal anxieties. Grief horror is a lasting legacy on the human condition, written in this moment about this moment.”

Mathews followed up Keating’s observation by quoting Rosie Perez, as character Gloria Clemente from the film White Men Can’t Jump: “See, if I’m thirsty. I don’t want a glass of water. I want you to sympathize. I want you to say, ‘Gloria, I too know what it feels like to be thirsty. I too have had a dry mouth.’ I want you to connect with me through sharing and understanding the concept of dry mouthedness.” 

“Someone was walking around with a hole in them that your words filled,” Mosahty said. 

Suggested grief horror reading: 

Whalefall by Daniel Kraus

The Fisherman by John Langan

Remains by Andrew Cull

Pet Semetary by Stephen King

Come With Me by Ronald Malfi

This Thing Between Us by Gus Moreno

Key Takeaways:

Horror is grounded in grief (and vice versa).

Grief horror is a post-pandemic reflection of collective societal anxiety at this moment in time. 

For a work to be grief horror, the protagonist should subvert / transcend / work through some manifestation of grief to achieve some form of catharsis (not necessarily resolution. 

Children should have access to fiction that represents their experience, including death and loss. 

Grief stories often involve processing feelings of guilt and shame around loss. Not everyone will welcome our process. Sometimes readers will be prompted to reach out to share their own stories, which can be both rewarding and a responsibility. 

Grief horror allows us to rewrite the ending and shape the narrative however we choose. As writers, writing grief narratives can give us something of the loved one to hold on to. 

Grief horror: draws heavily on isolation / missed opportunity / shifts back and forth through (Kübler-Ross) stages of grief / can be characterised by a loss of self-identity for some people / may include characters who appear unlikeable to some readers / may never be fully resolved.

To avoid derogatory tropes, write real characters with empathy and concern.


Mo Moshaty is a producer, international lecturer, and writer in the horror genre. Her Rondo Classic Horror Award-winning short film, 13 Minutes of Horror: Sci-Fi Horror, co-produced with her team, Nyx Horror Collective, found its home on streaming giant Shudder Channel along with its predecessor, 13 Minutes of Horror: Folklore. Lecturing on trauma within horror cinema, Mo’s analysis has been featured with universities and film festivals in the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Berlin, Mexico, and Canada. Mo’s literary work can be found in 206 Word Stories by Bag O Bones Press, A Quaint and Curious Volume of Gothic Tales, Love the Sinner by Brigids Gate Press, The Encyclopocalypse of Legends and Lore Vol.1 by Encyclopocalypse Press and Clairviolence: Tales of Tarot and Torment Vol 1 by Spooky House Press.

Clay McLeod Chapman writes books, comic books, children’s books as well as for film and television. You can find him at www.claymcleodchapman.com.Katherine Silva is a Maine author of grief and existential horror. She is also EIC of Strange Wilds Press and on the operations board of Third Estate Books. Her latest book, Undead Folk, comes out May 1st.

Ally Malinenko is the author of Ghost Girl and the Bram Stoker nominated This Appearing House and the forthcoming Broken Dolls. She pens her stories in the wee hours of the morning in her little writing closet. You can find her at allymalinenko.com 

Laura Keating is a writer from St. Andrews, New Brunswick. She is the author of Agony’s Lodestone, and her debut collection of short fiction, The Truest Sense, is due for release Spring 2024 from Cemetery Gates Media. Her work has been anthologized by Grindhouse Press, Cemetery Gates, Ghost Orchid Press, among others. She authors stories of monsters both human and unnatural, traditional creep-fests, and contemporary quiet horror filled with dread. She lives by the ocean in Nova Scotia with her husband, son, and two cats. To learn more about Laura, please visit her website, www.lorekeating.com; or follow her on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, (@lorekeating) and Facebook (Laura Keating author).

Mark Matthews is the author of novels such as All Smoke Rises, Milk-Blood and The Hobgoblin of Little Minds. He is also the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated editor of Lullabies for Suffering, Garden of Fiends and Orphans of Bliss. Reach him at WickedRunPress@gmail.com

Nat Cassidy is the author of the horror novels Mary: An Awakening of Terror and Nestlings, both with Tor Nightfire, as well as numerous, award-winning horror plays. You’ve also maybe seen him playing a Bad Guy of the Week on your favorite network procedural TV shows. More info at www.natcassidy.com.


The HWA Mental Health Initiative Charter can be found here: https://horror.org/mental-health-initiative-charter/

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