The Horror of Memory Loss

(Plus, why horror protagonists typically lack curiosity)

David Rhoades


This week, I found a weirdly specific trope among horror shorts from last year, uncovered a key element of science fiction horror, and found some great inspiration for creative work. I also found an example of dystopian body modification in the last place you’d expect it.

The hot horror trope of 2020: forgetting that your loved ones exist

I recently read The Best Horror of 2020 anthology edited by Ellen Datlow, and two of the stories featured a plot element where the main characters were either erased from their loved ones’ memories or had loved ones wiped from their memory.

It’s a compelling horror element that I’ve only seen once before: in Things We Lost in the Fire by Argentinian writer Mariana Enriquez.

Image owned by Portobello Books Ltd.

There’s an interesting connection here: Enriquez’s anthology grapples with the real political horror experienced by Argentinian workers under the right-wing military dictatorship in the late 1970s. An estimated 15,000 to 30,000 Argentinians were kidnapped by unnamed right-wing enforcers, never to be seen again. People would reportedly yell their full names while they were being snatched in the hopes that someone was in earshot and the victim’s loved ones would find out what happened to them.

In one account, a groom was dragged away in front of the bride and guests.

So, the trope about losing your loved ones — no closure, no chance to grieve— was born out of that collective political memory. But why did it show up in US horror fiction in 2021? Best guess: there have been one million US deaths due to COVID. Neither political party nor the mainstream media has fully acknowledged the enormity of the loss of life and what it means.

The US lost one million people, and the leading voices in our country have tried to convince us this is negligible. It’s in their favor that our brains can’t even conceive of a loss that enormous, but it remains a loss that we haven’t fully reckoned with.

Loss is tragic, but it’s human. It’s within the scope of most people to understand and metabolize. But loss that you can’t truly grieve, loss that you’re not even…



David Rhoades

I write about life as a working writer and how to practice sustained creativity for long periods. Subscribe to my weekly newsletter: