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Horror writing career born in childhood

| Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Michael Arnzen, an author and Seton Hill University professor of English, stands for a portrait on Jan. 9, 2017.

Is it a coincidence that horror writer Michael Arnzen was born in Amityville, N.Y., site of perhaps the most notorious haunted house of all? Whatever the case, the die was cast in childhood, when his father started taking him to horror movies. That eventually led to a career that has garnered Arnzen four Bram Stoker Awards from the Horror Writers Association.

Arnzen is a professor of English at Seton Hill University who also publishes poetry, literary criticism and pedagogical works. He lives in Greensburg with wife Renate, a homemaker and artist who has designed covers for some of his books, including a “stunningly weird” hand-shaped mosaic for his 2000 collection of macabre tales, “Fluid Mosaic.”

Question: What was your dad thinking, taking you to all those horror movies?

Answer: My mom wouldn't go with him and he was too afraid to go alone, so he dragged me along. He was the parent and I was the child that was victimized by it.

Q: Do you feel like it scarred you?

A: Not at all. There was censorship in a way, because when something bad would come on screen, he'd cover my eyes, and I'd just hear people screaming or breathing heavy. Then he'd lift his hands and the character or whatever would be gone, so I'd be left wondering if someone had just been brutally murdered or something. I think it made me a creative writer, because I had to fill in the blanks with my imagination.

Q: I read that you wrote your first horror stories to amuse your fellow soldiers when you were in the Army. True?

A: I want to say it started out of boredom. We were out in the field in the woodlands of Bavaria, Germany. Your imagination just kind of drifts because you're isolated; there's no media, there's no entertainment. My job was to sit in the back of a radio van and monitor the knobs and make sure the signals were clear. So I was pretty much alone, and when the equipment wasn't beeping, I got to read. I was reading horror a lot, and I felt like I had to respond to the books I was reading. When you're reading, you're part of an imaginary world, and it just triggered something in me that said, I could tell these stories too.

Q: Do you remember your first one?

A: The first one I remember involved flies. A guy was just plagued by flies and went insane trying to get rid of them. They were buzzing in his ears and getting in his eyes and he ended up falling off the roof or something, and then he's dead and a fly lands on his eyeball. It was really stupid. It was horror, but goofy, juvenile horror.

Q: How old were you?

A: I must have been 19.

Q: And things just went from there?

A: What made we want to keep doing it was seeing the reactions the guys had to these stupid stories. I loved getting a response, the belly laughter or even if it was “You're weird!” or “You're a sick man!”

When I went to college with my Army money, I didn't know what I was going to study. I thought I'd keep writing on the side, but I found that English classes were the ones I had the most fun with. I enjoyed talking about books and creative writing, and I found a job where I could keep doing that forever.

Q: Your work combines humor with horror. How do you reconcile the two?

A: These are things that are impossible to analyze or explain, and that's what makes them compelling. The crossover of humor and horror has sustained a lifetime of interest for me. There's something physical about both laughter and horror, the physical reaction to the idea.

That horror gets such an extreme, gut-level, immediate response fascinates me. It has the same payoff as survival, like when you slide on ice and narrowly avoid a car crash. Then you come out of it and say, wow, that was kind of cool!

Q: So that's the ultimate appeal?

A: I think horror is a world view. People who are horror fans see things with a dark view, but it doesn't mean it's all dark and depressing. I think of it as laughing in the face of death, not just cackling with glee over murder.

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750 or

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