Perhaps my memory deceives me, but I remember the first fictional character who terrified me was Chucky, the evil doll from the eighties movie series I later learned was called Child’s Play (great name, by the way). Like many of the horror films I watched as a child, I saw Chucky from some corner, hidden from the watchful eye of my older brother, who didn’t want me seeing it at such a young age. I’m sure I had run-ins with the series again, maybe a little older, but with just as much curiosity, low standards, and taste for the taboo.
While reading Pelea de gallos (2018, translated by Frances Riddle as Cockfight), the first book of short stories by Ecuadorian writer María Fernanda Ampuero, I could not help but glimpse a connection between her writing and the horror films I had seen as a child and teenager. Without going too far, and returning to the doll who scared me so much as a kid, just like in many of Ampuero’s stories, the scary thing about Chucky is not necessarily the possession enacted in the film’s first act, nor the doll’s plan to kill his innocent owner, nor the fact that an inanimate object can come to life and then murder indiscriminately; the scary part lies in the fact that the danger is inside the house, generally invisible to the adults and inexplicable to the children and teenagers forced to confront it, who in the solitude of their own youthful experience have no other choice but to trust, in this case, in a possessed doll. Something similar happens to the protagonist of “Blinds,” or to Verónica in “Coro.” In the solitude of their circumstances, and within the four walls of a house, they have nothing else to rely on, and end up trusting not a possessed doll but rather people capable of similar or worse evils.
By the third act, when Chucky is transformed into a knife-wielding whirlwind, the audience watches, dumbstruck, the spectacle of the battle between the doll-monster and the adults who desperately try to put an end to his menace. The formula for this story’s economic success lies in its ambiguous ending, which allows for the doll’s rebirth, such that he might return no less than eight times—which is to say, for eight more movies. The message was clear: Chucky could not die, not so much because he was invincible or because of the incompetence of adults who couldn’t protect their kids or teens, but because his death would also mean the end of a business. Leaving aside the lesson this teaches us, and regarding horror cinema’s ability to make money, another undeniable truth was laid bare: some horrors never really end. This is likewise the central axis of the work of María Fernanda Ampuero.
If you’re wondering why it’s necessary to talk about film when talking about the work of this Ecuadorian writer, in an interview María Fernanda gave Dolores Pruneda Paz (2021) to mark the launch of her book Sacrificios humanos (translated by Frances Riddle as Human Sacrifices), she said: “I’m very much a child of the movies, of eighties and early nineties movies, the golden age of the slasher, serial killers (Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers), Spielberg’s fantasy films, Alien, the adaptations of Stephen King’s novels. Those movies taught me how to write.”
It’s true, anyone who has read Cockfight (2018) or Human Sacrifices (2021) will perceive the cinematic flavor in Ampuero’s fiction. Hers is a literature of perspective that places the gaze (the camera, if you will) on specific characters. These are stories that give voice to those capable of grasping the true shock that comes with fright, which is to say, to children or teenagers, people who are learning for the first time what makes up the horror that wells up every day in every corner of this world. I should clarify that, while not all her characters are young, those who are not still approach the scabrous happenings that surround them with the same shock as one who’s discovering them for the first time. In the end, as Tudor says, cited by G.M. Martin (2019): “A taste of horror is a taste for something seemingly abnormal and is therefore deemed to require special attention.”
While the roots of Ampuero’s unmistakable style lie in the horror films of the eighties and nineties, and in her interest in capturing the youthful perspective on the shadows hidden in the home, her work has one crucial difference from these stories. The kind of horror that interests her is of a different variety than the horror we are used to in U.S. pop culture: María Fernanda is not attracted to that which separates itself from the real. She has no need to turn to the disguise of metaphor—monsters, paranormal activity, the terror of the unknown, etc. Rather, what terrifies us in her writing is how monstrous human nature can be. The best example of this appears in the first story of Cockfight: “Auction.” In this story, to generate tension or plunge us into distress, Ampuero has no need to talk of possessions, satanic rituals, ghosts, or apparitions; instead, we come face to face with a human reality that, while being plausible, is inexplicable to us, uncanny: a group of people whose faces we never see are sold to other anonymous characters, while her protagonist recalls how she learned to defend herself against the sexual violence she experienced as a child: “I discovered that those macho men […] were disgusted by the shit and blood and guts of the dead rooster. So I covered my hands, my knees, and my face with that mixture and they didn’t bother me with kisses and all that nonsense anymore.”
The artifice of the variety of horror cultivated by this Latin American woman lies in showing, in naming what is possible, what surely has happened (a little girl who has suffered repeated sexual violence, a group of people who are kidnapped to be trafficked), and—why not?—what could happen to you. There lies the true horror.
Not going too far, in “Monsters,” the third story in her first book, Ampuero presents a very eloquent dialogue—perhaps as an explanation of her own literary work, or what’s to come in the stories that make up Cockfight—in which her protagonists, two sisters who are fans of eighties horror movies, contrast their fear of “the dead, the ones that had returned from beyond, the possessed” with the fear of Narcisa, a domestic worker who reminds them—and, thereby, the reader—to “be more afraid of the living than the dead.”
Maybe through this urge to “put everyday horrors under a microscope” (as Ampuero says, cited by Abdala, 2023), María Fernanda evades one of the most generic formulae of the horror cinema that inspired her: the happy ending. Even though we all know Jason will be back, since the money-making machine can’t shut down, we all love to see the final girl of the moment defeat the threat and, after having been victimized for the length of a movie—ninety to one hundred twenty minutes—destroy her aggressor after uttering some epic line. Who doesn’t love Ripley’s classic “Get away from her, you bitch!” in Aliens? It’s different in María Fernanda’s writing. The author allows for few “happy endings,” the most fortunate of them all being precisely at the end of “Auction” (spoiler alert): yes, the protagonist gets away, but we leave the story knowing she was the only one who did. This final girl says nothing epic and is no stronger than her aggressors; the cunning of her escape is manifested in her knowledge of the limits of the perversions of those who intend to purchase her: “When it’s my turn […] I close my eyes and open my sphincter.” Her flight is possible only thanks to the resilience that comes of having survived the darkness of the chicken coop. And so, the fate of the rest of those kidnapped is yet more terrifying; we are disturbed not only by the shock of knowing human trafficking is real, but also by the certainty that these characters’ weakness lies squarely in the safety granted by the privilege of their lives thus far. The artifice comes to a close when the readers put themselves in these characters’ shoes, knowing the same thing could also happen to them: it could happen to you, because the filth of the world is closer than you think.
This is how María Fernanda’s writing works its magic and puts together the pieces that make up her special flavor of horror. Most of the characters in her stories don’t get away, don’t defeat the horrors that surround them; on the contrary, during their journeys they come ever closer to the nuclei of their suffering, until finally pulling down the veil and revealing the ominous dimension that menaces them in all its scope. I would dare to say that Ampuero’s ethos—her vision—relies on helping her reader to conceive of what Narcisa already warned us about: in order to survive, we should be more afraid of the living, of life. And while María Fernanda herself has claimed in an interview by Pomeraniec that she is “more interested in showing than in making you feel,” we must not forget that horror as a genre and a literary or artistic artifice “is specifically created to elicit fear consistently and deliberately” (Martin, 2019). In this context, many studies have “demonstrated empirically how exposure to certain types of film [I would include books in this claim] affects physical behavior and, in this specific example, how certain types […] inhibit motor behavior.” Throughout Cockfight, we find suicides, mental illnesses, incest, poverty, murder… the darkest corners of reality made literature. It is therefore impossible not to be paralyzed, not to feel vulnerable to chills going down your spine, not to experience a deep-seated pain and discomfort when, for example, the protagonist of “Blinds” approaches his mother’s room in the story’s final scene. By this point in the story, we know what’s coming next, and the adrenaline that Ampuero’s narration generates in the reader is no different from what we feel when we watch the protagonist of a horror film walk towards the darkness, towards the monster. Nonetheless, this author’s horror—which almost always takes place in well-lit settings, since her goal is to show—has a more abysmal emotional flavor, since the wounds inflicted upon these characters are tattooed on their souls. We know there is no way they can survive, even if they sidestep death, as María Fernanda says herself: “There are things you don’t survive, even though they don’t kill you.”
But what if the question was “fear: what is it good for?” What place or purpose does writing like Ampuero’s have in our lives? I think there are two possible answers. The first goes for those who are not horror fans, those who couldn’t bring themselves to watch The Blair Witch Project (1999), Get Out (2017), or Midsommar (2019), who covered their faces when Chucky drew near with a knife in his hand. If our options in the face of the rot or reality are to look or not to look, to darken or to illuminate, I think it’s important to remember what Freud said, cited by G.M. Martin (2019): “Everything that ought to have remained secret and hidden […] has come to light.” It doesn’t matter if we’re still afraid of the dark because, even if we sense the danger hiding in it, we must face up to the certainty that it really is so; even if we insist on covering our faces, Chucky really is approaching with his knife every day, and ignoring what’s happening will not help us survive. In this context, the second answer goes for horror fans, especially those interested in the conventional artifices of fiction that turn to imaginary monsters, ghosts, or the living dead as narrative mechanisms. I would like to ask you all, since you are indeed willing to look Chucky in the face: why not also confront what’s hiding in the shadows of humanity, without the cloak of fantasy? If the question is still “what place or purpose does writing like María Fernanda’s have in our lives?” then we must remember that literature, film, and art fulfill the function of breaking down the barriers that keep us from truly empathizing with others (or with ourselves) and understanding the diversity and complexity of human experience. Much has been said of how we Latin Americans experience this kind of stories, how we can or if it’s necessary to live alongside these fictions when we are already constantly exposed to the heart-rending news of our never-ending crisis. I believe, if we have already normalized the uncanny nature of our everyday nightmare, literature like María Fernanda’s becomes all the more relevant to our lives. It serves as a necessary mechanism by which to relearn empathy, to awaken our hearts and allow ourselves to feel sadness again. One study demonstrated, “When graduate nursing students and psychology students were shown videos of graphic medical procedures, for example, the nurses expressed less disgust and fear but more sadness” (Vlahou, cited by Martin, 2019). In other words, we need people with the bravery of those writers and artists who dare to say, “Enough, I know what you did, okay? I know the horror, I know the rot you mask with expensive perfumes” (Ampuero, cited by Pomeraniec, 2018). Getting to know the exact shape of our darkness and sadness is our only chance, like the protagonist of “Auction,” to survive, and maybe, if we’re lucky, to feel not only depressed but also indignant.
Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon