July 8, 2014

An Ode to Horror


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?


  1. I've always liked writing horror (exploring the wildly bizarre and twisted) but my tolerance for reading and watching horror has always been hit and miss. I "say" I like horror, then feel like baby when I get queasy watching it. I think this post helped me understand myself a bit more--especially when you mention the different types of horror that each of us at one point or another find some connection to in some degree. I'm probably able to "release" all of my horrific "needs" in writing in a very specific way, yet when those ' horror sliders' don't fit exactly what I'm looking for, it's off-putting. Makes a guy wonder...

    1. Those are really good points, Steve. I'm definitely hit and miss as well. Some themes are too much for me, and I like how you describe the types of horror as sliders with different tolerance levels for different people. Great insights!

    2. I haven't read Stephen King's article, but I kind of assume he's saying that a good horror story should have all three types of horror. But kind of to go along with Steve, I wonder if there's an un-tapped field that focuses exclusively on just one of those categoties. For example, I like dread, only kind of like horror, and kind of dislike revulsion. So I bet I would love a story that was almost all dread with no revulsion.

    3. Greg, those are interesting thoughts. I like to think of it in the terms that Brandon Sanderson uses for characters, which is a sliding scale model. You can increase one at the expense of the others to create a certain outcome. So, I didn't feel like he was saying that all were essential to every story. Which brings up the point of really blurred lines between genres. For example, when you say all dread and nothing else, I think of Wait Until Dark. I'd probably call it a mystery/suspense because it lacked the revulsion and horror, but it was also horrifying in terms of dread. This is part of why I'm intrigued by horror, because besides the blatant Stephen King, Joe Hill, Dean Koontz stuff, sometimes something is classified as horror when I don't understand where it fits and others seem definitely horrific but are labeled something different. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts and helping me grapple with why it does (or doesn't) matter to talk about horror.

  2. I had never really considered the point you bring up about preparation, which is genius because it's definitely part of the experience. As I read or watch a horror/suspense/etc. story play out, I'm also thinking about all the things I would do and what I don't have should the same circumstance befall me.
    I recently read a book by David Farland wherein he describes the physiological process we go through when we read. He talks about the Feralt triangle and the endorphin feedback we get when our brains produce endorphins to respond to pain, which in some measure, takes place when we read stories with good conflict. Anyway, very interesting.

    1. I've never heard of the Feralt Triangle. I'm going to look it up right now! I think it's so interesting how reading can create physical responses, and it's something I'm always interested in learning more about. Thanks for the insight!