The Appeal of Horror

A couple of days ago, Alicia commented on one of my blog posts. In response to my claim that Pump Six And Other Stories is a horror book because we can see ourselves and our culture in the worst parts of the stories, she said:

That’s a good point about horror. I feel like it should be distinguished from those horror *movies*, though, because this doesn’t sound anything like your typical “girl goes alone into a dark woods even though all signs point to dying screaming and crying” kind. The reason I don’t like those movies is because it all seems like gratuitous violence to me, silly or not, and I just don’t care to watch it.

I began a response by differentiating between a couple types of horror, but I immediately started finding new branches of things to say. So I never wrote the comment, and it spent a day bouncing around my head. Now I want to discuss exactly what the appeal of horror is.

I don’t watch very much horror, so I welcome feedback from anyone who is more immersed in its subtleties.

I think that my starting definition of horror would be:

Entertainment whose draw comes from unpleasant elements.

Looking at the literal definition, it’s easy to see why some people don’t understand why anyone would like horror. By definition, it’s supposed to be off-putting. I think that there are actually several reasons to want to be exposed to an “unpleasant element”, and they broadly fall into two different categories:

  • To overcome it
  • To experience it

Overcoming It

This is the source of the fascination that first draws children to scary stories. If you can put your fears inside a harmless fiction, then you can gain control over them. This is very similar to many theories about dreams, which say that nightmares are a way of processing our fears in order to deal with them. Watch the mix of bragging, pressuring, and empathizing that occurs when young kids try to psych themselves up to watch a scary show or go in a haunted house. By the time we grow up, most “scary movies” have stopped feeling very real, but they are absolutely terrifying to children. Once they get through it, though, they can laugh it off and realize that it was not real after all. It’s an important part of development.

The flip side of this is the bragging rights. Especially through youth, this definitely seems to be a big draw of horror. If a certain level of horror no longer scares you, then you can show off in front of other people who are still uncomfortable with it. Jockeying for position is almost as primal of an urge as processing fears. This motivation is the only one that I’m not going to defend. Fortunately, it generally wears off when people grow up, because by then everyone is over their fear of the basic stuff, and there’s not much shame in disliking the more extreme horror.

There’s another interesting aspect to this part of horror. Many people continue to enjoy “scary” movies that are way too tame to actually scare them any more. Sometimes, the thrill of laughing off the fear is replaced by laughing at the low-budget effects, but in general I think this is because the fear has been so thoroughly dominated that it’s now actually safe and reassuring to watch it. I would argue that for these people, it’s no longer accurate to call these movies “horror”. My definition of horror involved unpleasant effects. If they’re not unpleasant to you, there’s no horror involved. For example, I listen to music that many people would call discordant; I’m not listening to overcome the noise, but because to me it is pleasant. If you’re gleefully laughing and munching down popcorn while you watch someone slash through the cheerleading squad, then it’s not actually horror to you. Part two of my definition would be:

Horror is in the eye of the beholder.

Experiencing It

There are a lot of reasons to want to experience the effect of horror. The more visceral stuff gives you an adrenaline rush, obviously. As for the more creepy, subtle works, I’ve heard people explain it as “fucking themselves up” in much the same way that they might describe getting drunk. Hey, we all need escapes, and horror movies aren’t going to cause long-term liver damage! Some people might ask why anyone would choose to escape to something unpleasant, but I think a big part of the draw is that it’s something different. If those experiences become part of your life, then they’re adding variety to it. For the same reason that vacations help you remember that there’s more to life than your daily grind, a hobby should give your life a dimension that it wouldn’t otherwise have.

Additionally, experiencing unpleasant things can be an important tool for learning or growing. Those people who are adamantly against horror are reacting to the fact that it actually sticks with them, or even keeps them scared because they keep seeing the monsters in the world around them. The simple truth is that people who like horror do so for the same reason. Pleasant experiences tend to reinforce what we already know or like, so most experiences that actually let you evolve have to be unpleasant. It’s like the cliché of the tough father who sends his children on “character-building” experiences, except much safer.

I’d even say this is the final part of my definition of horror:

Horror changes the way you perceive the world around you.

The traditional monster and slasher movies may not seem to teach you very much. And for you, they probably don’t. But the reason they remain the standard entry-level horror fodder is that young people do need a way to come to terms with the fact that their bodies are made of meat. It’s not always a pleasant thought, but at some point you need to accept your mortality and fragility. When you see someone slashed open, it changes the way you see yourself and the people around you. More significantly, this change is a necessary and realistic one.

Once you’re old enough to stop feeling immortal, you no longer need reminders that you aren’t. That doesn’t mean that horror can’t expand your horizons in new ways. Almost everyone agrees, for example, that zombie movies are actually about how the survivors act when civilization no longer restricts them. And like I said when discussing Pump Six, its horror lies in making us feel uncomfortable with ourselves. The murderers in that book disturbed me not because of the subject matter (almost every book I read has a murder at some point!), but because their motivations rang so true. I feel like I have a slightly different perspective on my life and the people around me now. Similarly, the possible futures that the book described were detailed and believable enough that their real-world connections can’t help but stick with you. I’m sure that a lot of people who read “The Calorie Man” now have a deeper appreciation at what a fundamental part of our survival has been claimed by genetic engineering companies, and the title story gives a new sinister edge to the alleged “dumbing down” of our world.

Personally, I don’t consume a lot of horror these days. I definitely enjoyed my days when every scary movie seemed fresh and new, but I never graduated to the harsher, torturous stuff. Now, I sometimes enjoy that comfort that comes from B-movies that are obviously no longer threatening to scare me, and I am really intrigued by the exploration of humanity in zombie stories. But for the most part, I prefer horror in unexpected places. Whether the surprise comes from a simple bait-and-switch, like From Dusk Till Dawn, or the more subtle elements that come from a book like Pump Six, I like it when horror surprises me. I don’t want to watch a movie expecting to be scared. That creepy twist to my perspective, and the new way it lets me see life, is most effective when it simply happens.

Update: I have further thoughts on how horror can work in my review of Let Me In.

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