What Is Horror Exactly and Why Do We Like It So Much?

Horror 101 Feb 14, 2021

Before we start, here's a little story.

I remember my very first introduction to the horror genre.  It was magnificent! Looking back, my parents should have been more forceful when they told me to leave, but in the end, they let me stay as long as I wanted.  Bad idea.  Anyway, I was about six years old and I definitely didn't want to go to bed.  Who wants to go to bed at 8pm on a Saturday?  So instead of watching TV or playing in my room, I went out into the living room to see what my parents were doing.  They were far too quiet, eerily quiet.

Now, at this point, I was obsessed with ET.  I had worn out the VHS from watching it so many times.  So imagine my astonishment when I saw that my parents were watching a movie with an older Drew Barrymore.  My mother warned me that I wouldn't like the movie when I plopped down beside her.  But I never listen.  A few minutes go by and my heart rate SPIKED!  There's a knife, running, crying, blood.  

Upset that my reason for staying was now dead, I promptly went back into my room amongst snickers and outright "I told you so's."  Now, I wasn't scared perse. I was mainly angry that Drew's character was dead, but I was also in awe at how my heart was still racing once I made it back to my room.  After that first experience, I have dedicated my attention to recapturing that delightful feeling of dread.  Such intense emotion as a result of TV or movies has only ever happened to me a couple of times: Scream, The Exorcist, The Omen, Candyman, and the Weeping Angels from the Doctor Who series (my version of say you were raised Catholic without saying you were raised Catholic).

The Tenth Doctor faced the Weeping Angels in WW1 during the comic-strip story, The Weeping Angels of Mons.
Image Credit: The Doctor Who Companion | The Tenth Doctor faced the Weeping Angels in WW1 during the comic-strip story, The Weeping Angels of Mons.

But why am I like this?  

I know I'm not the only one chasing a thrill, a scare, or any hope at genuine fear. Countless blogs, books, articles, podcasts, movies, TV series, short stories, myths, etc. are dedicated to just that – fulfilling the strong desire to feel fear in the comfort of relative safety.  But that can't be all, right?  We can't all be on the same quest?

Well, in a 2018 interview, Director of the Film and Media Studies program and Tufts University Professor Malcolm Turvey highlighted three key reasons as to why so many people are drawn to such a macabre genre:

1. The Beast Within Theory: "Although we consciously disapprove of what the monster is doing, deep down part of us enjoys seeing the murder and mayhem the monster unleashes—because if we could, we would do that.” I can definitely see this as a legitimate reason. So many times I find myself rooting for the killer when the characters make dumb choices in movies like Friday the 13th or in games like Dead By Daylight or Among Us.

2. The Sincere Dread Theory: "The idea is that horror fans are wired or socially formed in such a way that they get a kick out of the fear and other strong visceral sensations of watching horror films." Well, given my longstanding search for a movie, book, or game that can evoke that feeling of sincere dread, I'd say this theory is right on the money.

3. The Fiction Mirrors Life Theory: "Horror films can put us in touch with what we’re really afraid of, which are often socially constructed fears. Part of what one marvels at is how cleverly the filmmakers are using the vehicle of the horror genre to articulate those real-world issues." In the documentary Horror Noire, Get Out Director Jordan Peele brought up the very real need for Black audiences to see Black characters as not only capable protagonists, but heroes AND purveyors of justice in a way that has yet to happen in real life. Even in non-horror movies like Django Unchained, rooting for the underdog as a way to get the retribution you can't get in reality has an indescribable appeal.

I find that I am drawn to this genre for all three of these reasons.  I like the feeling I got all those years ago of being truly scared (something that is beyond impossible now, maybe I've been desensitized from trying so hard).  Sometimes there are really charismatic villains (this isn't horror, but Killmonger in Black Panther had some really good points) that you can't help but root for.  Or sometimes it's fun to be the Big Bad, especially if it's antithetical to your personality.  And finally, catharsis is healthy.

Image Credit: The Official Goosebumps Facebook Page

So, what is horror exactly?

Why even ask this question?  Because it's necessary.  So many titles are miscategorized as horror that don't really belong to the genre.  That being said, different people have different thoughts on this matter.  Personally, I ascribe to the following school of thought (and yes I'm biased as a result of my reading habits in elementary school).  According to children's author and horror literary giant R. L. Stine (I said what I said), what distinguishes horror from other genres is its intent "to elicit a sense of dread in the reader through frightening images, themes, and situations.  A horror story often shocks and provokes with its exploration of the unknown."

And that last word, unknown, is key.  As a first-year in college, I took an English course on monsters.  Throughout that entire semester, we discussed everything from the Minotaur to circus "geeks."  And it always came down to this one thing, this one theme:  People are afraid of the unknown.  Once that which is unknown becomes known, fear dissipates.  Take for instance ghost stories.  So many of them rely on people's fear of the dark.  But why are we afraid of the dark?  Because we don't know what's in it, what waits for us, what will pounce the moment it gets a chance.

The intent to elicit a sense of dread in the reader through frightening images, themes, and situations.  A horror story often shocks and provokes with its exploration of the unknown.

Now let's say you shine a light on the darkness.  There are two options, nothing is there or something is there.  If there is nothing, you go about your business.  If there is something, you have identified the source of the fear.  In that case, there are now more options from which to choose: fear the thing and what it can do to you (the unknown) or fight back/flee.  If you don't know that the thing is, you're back to square one, afraid of the unknown.  The cycle then repeats until you identify what the thing is.  On the other hand, if you already know what the thing is and choose to flee or fight back, then there is no need to fear the thing anymore.  You know what it's going to do.  What you don't know is how much it will hurt, until Mike Meyers introduces your insides to the outside with a kitchen utensil. But that's neither here nor there.  Instead, you are met with the thrill of the chase, the hunt, the will to escape or destroy that which would destroy you. Consequently, the horror then becomes a thriller, which is why so often horror is cross-identified as thrillers.

So then if that's the case can you ever have a true horror?  I'm not sure to be honest.  There are some titles that are really close in my humble opinion–and I'll go into detail about those in future posts.  But either way, I do enjoy the ride all the same.

Image Credit: Hollywood Reporter | Screen capture from Paranormal Activity 4

As the head of the Strange and Unusual Club for Horror Junkies (not a real group, yet), it's important to properly code and catalogue this library—insofar as you believe in categorization to begin with.  There's nothing worse than being promised a proper supernatural horror than to get a thriller mystery instead.  And don't get me wrong, I love thrillers too, but that's not what I'm looking for.

I'm looking for the paranoia of picking up a knife in Puppet Combo's Nun Massacre as you search through a dark and dangerous boarding school for your daughter, hoping that a crazy-ass nun isn't going to jump out and stab you to death (tell me you were raised Catholic without saying you were raised Catholic, part 2).

I'm looking for the blood-curdling existential fear that flows through your veins when you realize that the Candyman is terrorizing the wrong people and that you look like his victims.

I'm looking for the bizarre pride when Melanie in The Girl With All the Gifts decides it time for the human race to say "night night" and pave the road for a new race of people.

As a mirror to the problems of the world and the fears its inhabitants hold dear, I'm looking for something that can connect me to others and give me insight into who we are as a people. Horror is just one way of many to share the human story and our experiences.  Now, I'm not sure why you like horror, but I do hope you stick around and embrace the delightful dread with me!

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