The Appeal of Horror

haunted houseIn his essay, “Why We Crave Horror,” Stephen King posits that we’re drawn to horror movies because they make us feel normal, essentially.  When we compare ourselves to the debauchery of horror movies, we don’t feel so frighteningly different from others.  We are not evil spirits or sociopathic serial killers, so we’re doing okay, and we’re not very unlike those around us.  King’s theory makes sense; nobody wants to be the victim of “terminal uniqueness” – the state of feeling inherently and vastly different from others.  But I think the theory is simplistic; it doesn’t fully embrace the multi-dimensional intrigue of the horror genre.  The theory seems to imply that horror fans see themselves as quirky outcasts who crave the feeling of being like others.  This is probably partially true.  I’m a little strange, and there have been times in my life where I’ve felt both strange and estranged.  But I think such a theory – without any supplementary reasoning – lends itself to a sort of “hasty generalization” of horror fans.  It assumes that, first, all fans of the genre feel “less than normal,” and second, that they all desire a feeling of normalcy.  I think King’s theory explains part of horror’s appeal, but it leaves room for further analysis.

The most basic appeal of a horror movie, to me, is less the feeling of normalcy it provokes, and more the feeling of, well, oddly enough, gratitude.  Have you ever had a really terrible day preceding a horror movie viewing?  I have.  On these occasions, horror movies put things into stark perspective, since I can easily suspend disbelief to enjoy these films.  One of my lesson plans might have gone badly, I might have had an argument with someone I’m close to, or I might feel eons behind with grading papers, but such seeming travesties are a puff of air compared to, say, the experience of Drew Berrymore’s character Casey, in Scream.  A delusional murderer stabs Casey in the voice box before killing her.  She slinks across the grass trying to yell “mom,” as her parents pull into the driveway, but to no avail.  She’s been stabbed in the throat, and the murderer is about to finish the job.  The completely grotesque event puts life into perspective.  Grading a stack of research papers at 2 a.m. seems benign compared to the gore and suffering inherent in horror movies.  To that end, horror movies are not just appealing because they make us feel comparatively normal, like King asserts.  Horror movies make our lives seem, well, easier than we may otherwise make them out to be.

This explanation is helpful, but we’re not always feeling discontent or frustrated.  Yet we’re still drawn to horror.  I think this allure happens because we’re drawn to what we fear.  When my sister was younger, she had a fascination with sharks.  She read books about them and learned about different types of sharks.  But, she was terrified of them.  She was afraid to swim under water because she thought sharks lurked in the dark blue recesses of our four-foot swimming pool.  When we visited Sea World’s shark exhibit, she stood facing the wall opposite the shark tank, quivering and waiting for the rest of the family to finish viewing the hungry animals.  She was fascinated, but very frightened.  It’s no secret that some people are drawn to darkness more than others, but I wonder if, deep down, those people are the most afraid of the darkness and unknown, as abstract and intangible concepts.  This heightens the intrigue of such a dark genre.  I may be able to watch zombies tear through human flesh with a less sensitive gag reflex than my non-horror loving friend, but deep down, do I fear the darkness – encapsulated, in this example, by the idea of death, ironic resurrection, and the mindless thirst to kill – more than my friend?  I’m not sure.  But it makes sense that people who are the most drawn to darkness are those most afraid of the dark – deep down – and perhaps those most skeptical of the light.

We may be drawn to the darkness because we are afraid of it, but I think there’s something else that draws us to the sinister and macabre.  Anthropologically, one trait of human nature is the need to explain the unknown.  Some might argue that in each human being, there is a fundamental thirst for spirituality, for a connection with a higher power.  But I think the desire to delve into the horror realm stems from an ironic morphing –and perhaps inversion – of that impulse.  After all, as we sought God, we conceived of the devil.  Some people are just more interested in the devil than others.  This does not mean such people desire to commune with him, only that their interest is more piqued.  Indeed, whether or not I believe “the devil” exists, I find the concept absolutely mortifying.  Still, the question of how unbridled evil manifests and operates is, in a twisted way, fascinating.  The history of Rock N’ Roll illustrates this concept well: Robert Johnson sang about the crossroads and the Rolling Stones wrote a song called “Sympathy for the Devil.”  In his book, Mystery Train, Greil Marcus notes that one motif of the earliest inceptions of rock n’ roll is this idea of running from the devil.  If we feel like the devil is always on our back, of course we’ll want to understand him.  Many human beings have as much a need to understand unfettered evil – or at least malice – as they do innate love and goodness.  Some people turn to religion for that understanding, and others turn to horror.

Finally, although perhaps less profoundly, there’s a lot of variety in the horror genre.  Interested viewers can watch humans being senselessly mangled in a Rob Zombie film, or they can watch intensity rise slowly in an old black and white movie, like The Haunting.  Vampires and zombies are all the rage right now, because we seem to have a cultural interest in transformation – the morphing of the body and, often times, the soul – perhaps because we have been changing so much as a society for the past 20 years.  We’re fascinated by these semi-supernatural beings, and the horror genre allows you to take your pick of supernatural entities.  Personally, I’m a ghost fan, but you may enjoy vampires or witches.  In fact, perhaps there’s one supernatural being that every horror fan – or every person – is drawn to.  Whether you like monsters or aliens, the genre likely has something of interest for you.

Regardless of primary reasons for an interest in the genre, King’s answer only half-suffices to explain fascination with horror.  There are, as it turns out, myriad elements that make the genre appealing.  In a sense, horror is one of the least solipsistic genres, because it forces the viewer to go beyond the self and to examine something far removed from his or her immediate reality.  Plus, there are a lot of underlying, valuable themes and symbols in a good horror movie.  Horror forces us out of the –sometimes mundane—day-to-day minutiae—and for that reason becomes, ironically, satisfying and refreshing.



The Appeal of Horror

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