I'll just put it out there—I love creepy, twisted, dark, messed-up, terrifying stories. I used to be self-conscious about all of the mystery, suspense, and horror books that I devoured, thinking that they were a lesser genre. So when I went off to college, I gave away all of my R.L. Stine and Stephen King. I boxed stacks of Mary Higgins Clark and Agatha Christie. I gave up fear-inducing books in order to focus on real literature like Austen and Steinbeck.
And here's the thing. I do love Austen and Steinbeck. I love a lot of classics and literary fiction, but I've realized that horror has its place as well.
I was able to start looking at horror in a different way when I took a course on fairy tales in contemporary society. I realized how much the tales I grew up on had been sanitized, and that the original tales were horrific. They were meant to be gruesome and terrifying. They were meant to scare as a way to moralize and teach—a far cry from today’s Disneyfied versions of fairy tales.
Stephen King argues, “the best horror films, like the best fairy tales, manage to be reactionary, anarchistic, and revolutionary all at the same time” (Google “Why We Crave Horror Movies”). I don’t agree with his entire article, but I do believe in the subversive nature of both fairy tales and horror. I think they both serve important functions in our culture, and those who appreciate horror, like those who appreciate fairy tales, aren’t deviants or future serial killers.
Stephen King’s Danse Macabre is a pretty interesting exploration of horror (mostly films) that anyone interested in the genre should pick up. He says that horror is about three things: Horror (when you experience something shocking), Terror (feeling of dread that something may happen), and Revulsion (the gross stuff—my least favorite of the three). When they are used in various combinations, the horror genre is created.
A couple of years ago, I saw a really interesting exhibit at the EMP Museum in Seattle called: Can't Look Away: The Lure of Horror Film. I was especially drawn to this wall:
If horror films and books scare us, why do we like them? I know everyone doesn’t like/get horror, but I would add thrillers, suspense, mystery, true crime, etc. to the list. Some of us are drawn to the heart-pounding feeling of wondering what’s going to happen next or asking why someone would do such a thing. I liked some of the reasons on that wall in Seattle:
- It tests our courage in a safe environment
- It reinforces good vs. evil (some even argue that horror is the only medium that truly explores the contrast between true good and true evil)
- It creates a rush of heightened emotions
- It allows us to safely explore taboo subjects
- It reflects our nightmares and dreams
I think this is a great starting point, but there are many other reasons as well. I’ll go into some of those in a later post, where I’ll look at some aspects of fear that I find really interesting in literature.
But, King’s comparison of horror to fairy tales, and the EMP’s look at the draw of horror illustrate that horror does matter in popular culture. Fear is a powerful motivator. Think of any horror or thriller where a child is taken or a life is threatened or a person is tortured or chased—people are manipulated to do horrible things because of fear. They react in ways that are against their normal behavior or belief system.
To me, that’s one of the greatest draws of horror. What would I do if confronted by my greatest terror? Would I be true to myself? Would I be smart and able to fight? Would I survive?
I’m drawn to the ideas that horror lets me 1) grapple with my fears. Danse Macabre claims that in periods of fear, like right after 9/11 or during the Cold War, there are increased outputs and consumption of horror. Film and literature are safe places to confront those fears at a level that we’re individually comfortable with. If it gets too intense, we can always close the book. And, 2) preparation. I personally love to imagine what I would do if zombies or aliens attacked or how I would survive biological warfare.
I love the feeling of my heart pounding, of realizing I’m holding my breath, or when something drives an audible gasp from my chest.
I can’t think of another genre that creates quite the same physical, mental, and emotional responses. I think it’s a pretty powerful type of literature.
Do you enjoy reading horror/thrillers/mystery/suspense? If so, why? Why do you think we react so viscerally to stories when we know they’re fiction?