Our minds and bodies aren’t built to enjoy fear, so why does our passion for horror persist?
The question of the appeal, worth, value, purpose, or ‘meaning’ of horror fiction is a profound and expansive one. What exactly is so alluring about this style of storytelling, whose roots reach through centuries of folklore originally designed to warn and deter? Why do we love horror? To dismiss or otherwise attempt to invalidate this fearsome brand of entertainment without asking this question is doing the genre, and ourselves, a disservice. So let’s get stuck in.
I asked three horror fans why they love the genre. The following are a few short extracts from their responses (their full answers can be found here):
Ewan Rayner, movie expert/analyst
Heather Rae, horror lover/creator of railways
Mai Kil, horror writer extraordinaire
Here’s sociologist and fear expert Dr Margee Kerr weighing in:
“You’ve probably heard of fight or flight, and the cascade of chemicals that are associated to the threat response. We’ve heard of adrenaline and how our body is launched into go mode, our metabolism increases, we’re converting as much energy as we can, all of our attention and all of our resources are reprioritised to focus on being alive, on being strong, on surviving. There’s no time for anxious rumination about the future. We’re grounded in the present in our bodies. And in the absence of real threat, that can feel pretty good.”
Dr Margee Kerr, Why do we like to be scared?
A common parallel used to explain away the enjoyment we get from horror – particularly films – is the roller coaster. I was pleasantly surprised to find none of my three guinea pigs drawing on this somewhat reductionist solution, no matter how true it may be. It’s easy to summarise horror’s appeal this way. Yes, the cocktail of chemicals spunked by our brains during its fear response mechanisms leads to a thrilling experience, and our surviving of said experience can lead to a whole other bunch of yummy ‘reward’ chemicals. But the answer to ‘why’ doesn’t end there.
Horror is a psychological genre, and so, as with all matters of the mind, it would be a mistake to resolve any ‘why’ question with just one answer, or equally to discount any offered up. To understand the pleasure of horror literature and film we must explore the various different candidates that may contribute to our enjoyment. We might as well start with the above Dr Kerr’s fight or flight.
The fight or flight bodily response crops up pretty regularly in our day-to-day lives, albeit in less critical circumstances than those in which our ancestors experienced its twang. While the purpose of such a defence mechanism might seem somewhat overkill in the face of bill payment reminders, difficult co-workers, or getting ready for a date, horror utilises this cascade of physiological processes in a singular way.
When the fight or flight response is triggered, chemicals are released in the brain that prepare the body to deal with the threat. Pain signallers are attenuated, energy production is ramped up, and non-essential systems such as critical thinking are shut down. Given the difficult moral and social questions horror often attempts to tackle, it’s interesting that throughout part of the ride in which these questions are posed – that is, the fight or flight portion – our bodies’ abilities to critically think are lowered. The horror genre is unique from other works of fiction that compel us to face challenging questions in that it does so through forced states of cognitive vulnerability; yes, our brains are chemically preparing us to defend and survive, but in doing so it lowers our capacity for objective analysis. This may seem paradoxical. After all, don’t we need our critical thinking faculties to engage with moral or social conundrums?
Utilising the roller coaster metaphor in a different way, we can visualise the dynamic track on which expertly crafted horrors operate. The dips and loops and twists are punctuated with straights and inclines which, although may contribute to a building sense of dread, go easy on our fight or flight responses sufficiently to allow these conundrums to soak in. The writer or filmmaker probably doesn’t want us mulling over the subtext until we’re done, so these periods of respite in the roller coaster’s track allow us to subconsciously absorb the material so we may later ruminate on what it all meant. The unique emotions horror draws from us help forge a more personal connection with the book or film, as well as those we experience it with (the oxytocin hormone – the same to be associated with trust, relationship building, and sexual activity – is responsible for the sensation of closeness felt in times of terror shared with another), may help us connect with the subtext all the more, and care enough to spend time thinking about what underlying questions or answers the material may offer.
Our friend Dr Kerr also observed:
“Behind hate, discrimination, violence, we’ll often find fear. Fear of others who are different than us. Fear of those who don’t look or sound like us. Who challenge our values, our beliefs, our sense of what we believe to be true. Our sense of identity, our sense of self. Fear is often fuelling the 24/7 cycle of media, where practically every politician and outlet on both sides take advantage of our evolutionary adaptive preference or attraction to the dramatic, or the tragic, or the repulsive. ‘If it bleeds it leads’ has never felt more true.”
If fear is such an essential component in the evils of our modern world, then how can we give credit to a medium of entertainment that exploits it? Our daily lives require us to push down the darkest human angsts in order to be functioning, productive human beings. But what happens when the darkness is pushed down indefinitely and never given a chance to surface? Horror explicitly confronts the greatest, unassailable fears: death, harm coming to those we love, physical and psychological pain, to name but a few. Does it answer or solve them? No, but it performs an essential role in forcing us to face them.
“Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.”
Carl Jung on the concept of the ‘shadow self’
That wasn’t the first time the true monsters had been said to live within us, and it’s continued to be said since. If we were utterly benevolent beings capable of no wrong, would we have any interest in horror books and movies? If the monsters didn’t reside within, would we connect at all with the terrors unfolding on screen?
These internal monsters don’t just represent what we as humans are capable of, but also the horrors of our past, the dark events that went into making us who we are. There’s a reason psychologists spend so much time encouraging patients to return to their childhoods. Traumatic events and difficult periods in our past don’t fall away with the passage of time – they remain rooted in our consciousness and become deeply woven into the tapestry of our psyche. Confrontation with these black patches is a painful internal process, just as grieving is an inner torment. But unlike grief, the stages of which are said to be inevitable, engaging with our inner demons isn’t inexorable, despite its benefits being commonly accepted. Entire branches of psychology have been built around the methodology of such exercises and, although you can’t beat a good therapist, the horror genre can also pitch us face to face with the darkness inside.
“Horror films don’t create fear. They release it.”
The argument of horror exorcising our inner demons feels like a convincing one. Horror fans are some of the most gentle, friendly people I’ve met. Interestingly, I could say the same for heavy metal fans. Whether exposure to extreme material has a positive or negative effect is a complex discussion with valid points on both sides, but the idea of there being benefit in confronting these black patches of our psyche is old and undeniable.
People have different emotional needs, and not everyone will feel the same thrill from the same material. Anyone should be wary when dipping their toes into the more extreme end of horror, but many prefer to avoid the genre all together. Still, not all horror is graphic, explicit physical special effects being nothing more than a device, or set of devices, unto itself. The implied is just as (or usually more) effective than the revealed. You don’t need to bear witness to the evacuated viscera of a Saw game participant to feel the benefit of a horror thrill ride, or the sense of accomplishment commonly cited at having survived pushed boundaries. By vicariously experiencing dangerous or life-threatening situations with no risk to yourself, you undergo the physical and neurochemical effects of genuine peril while safely removed from the threat. Further, the witnessing of a horror film pulls you out of that physical and mental passive state brought about by so much on-screen entertainment – even the good stuff. We’re braving these events, detached, in our couches, but no other genre of film prepares our bodies for physical fight or flight the way horror does.
“Usually when we’re watching something we’ve shut down the motor regions of the brain, and yet those stimuli [from a shocking scene] are so strong that they overcome the inhibition to the motor system.”
Michael Grabowski, editor of Neuroscience and Media: New Understandings and Representations
So is the root of our enjoyment in horror solely down to neurochemical reactions? There’s no denying a large part of the experience must be down to the effects of the brain’s fear response. Countless people find enjoyment in fear away from horror literature and film, be it bouncing on a bungee rope or mountain biking, so we know the bodily reactions of feeling afraid or threatened can be enjoyable. Is our answer purely chemical?
We’ve heard the theory that addressing our inner demons can be a healthy process, that there can be benefit in confronting what Jung called our shadow selves. But is there benefit to our enjoyment anywhere other than neurochemical reactions or subconscious confrontations?
Dr. Steven Schlozman uses Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger to demonstrate one example of horror raising difficult social questions, something touched on earlier. Such questions – social, political, moral, or otherwise – are usually uncomfortable to confront, but in the ‘campy displacement’ of horror, as Dr. Schlozman puts it, we are able to place these awkward issues within the monsters and terrors on screen. This detachment allows us to view them objectively, somewhat removed, and attempt to answer them from a safe distance.
Freddy Krueger is a child killer who, following his capture and trial, is let off on a technicality. A mob of vengeful parents from his street, Elm Street, hunt down Freddy and burn him alive in the boiler room of the chemical plant in which he worked, and where he took his victims. He was reborn as a ‘dream demon’ following his death, terrorising and ultimately killing teenagers in their dreams. About the movie, Dr. Schlozman says:
“Everybody who went to that movie believes in due process – everybody in the movie believes in due process, the whole movie’s about due process, believe it or not – and yet Freddy gets burned alive. So even if you don’t believe in due process, does somebody really deserve that kind of ending? And before you know it, just like that, this trifling film, this throwaway, this thing that you rented – probably because that face caught your attention – now you’re thrust into this really interesting discussion about the ragged world of mob justice. And we can ask those questions much more easily in a horror film.”
Dr. Schlozman, What horror films teach us about ourselves and being human
Krueger is the dangers of mob mentality incarnate. He is a personification of what the neglect of due process can lead to. Watching films like Nightmare on Elm Street, and assuming we’re open to having these questions posed to us, we’re able to detach ourselves from the issue at hand so we may confront them comfortably(ish). The questions and issues posed by horror are usually timeless (mob mentality and the witch-hunt mindset particularly are enjoying a renaissance in recent decades) and given the evolving style of the genre, the issues raised are being reframed within the tastes of new generations of moviegoers and readers.
“Bathing for a time in the red rivers of violence and retribution that feed the heart of this fiction may indeed wash away some part of our insanity; discharging our anger by indulging our private monsters. But if it doesn’t – if we’re simply making ourselves all the crazier by inflaming these appetites – then I humbly suggest that it’s the way of the world, and perhaps our culture, in its fall from faith and certainty, needs to go through a dark night of the soul, in which the atrocities of street and battlefront, and those conjured by storytellers, become one seamless nightmare…”
The explanations discussed so far as to why we love horror seem valid, and our true reasons probably encompass bits of all these answers, as well as many more. However, I feel the rationale for my own love of the genre lingers a little outside the points already touched upon. I’ve been thinking about my own response to the question I posed to three horror fans at the beginning of this post. Why do I love horror?
There are reasons I can identify away from the experience itself. I find the brazen addressing of the macabre and horrific a relief from what can seem like a world of plastic, artificial gaiety. Advertisement, workplace culture, social media, food packaging: selfish motivations ultimately lurk behind them all – indeed, arguably behind the intentions of all human activity. It’s a colourful, personable culture on the whole, and that’s a good thing. But it can feel like coming up for air when sinking into a magnificently crafted horror after the gaudy, catchphrase-laden daily grind. Too many of us live to work with little choice in the matter, and horror can be a healthy outlet for our frustrations, a scream in the face of our enslavement, a roar of all those forbidden things that shouldn’t be mentioned.
I’ve also considered that my answer to the question might relate to the established essence of all storytelling: conflict. Be it Shakespearean tragedy, Mills & Boon romance, or The Chuckle Brothers, conflict is indisputably the engine that powers all storytelling. We could ask whether there is any purer form of conflict in fiction (or anywhere) than that of fear, and what this tells us about horror literature and film. Does this genre tap into the soul of fiction deeper than any other?
These kinds of questions (and hell, maybe even the question this whole essay is trying to tackle) are ultimately unanswerable. Neurochemical reactions, subconscious confrontations, the posing of questions we may otherwise avoid: all valid responses to our question of why we love horror. But the best way to conclude, and to answer for myself, is to think of how I feel watching and reading some of my favourite horrors.
It’s important to emphasise that horror misses the mark possibly more than any other genre; that there are more bad horrors than good is a fairly reasonable statement. It can be an exploitative style of filmmaking and writing, shocking and controversial for no real reason, no more effective than a jab in the ribs or decaying roadkill dangled in front of you. But I feel something deeply as I endure her daughter’s possession alongside Chris MacNeil, or as Jonathan Harker and I spot our host lizard-crawling down the side of the castle, or when I finally leave Black Hills Forest just outside Burkittsville, Maryland – alone.
I think what I feel is a sense of reverence, awe at the way a book or film can pull me in, shift my every priority and worry and wish into the events of this story and its characters. True, a fan of any genre could say the same thing, but I feel nothing short of wonderment at the psychological manipulation that comes with astonishing horror, and of the writers’ and filmmakers’ abilities to develop a sense of dread and foreboding, to play on my building terror, to reveal the horror at just the right moment, and to click their fingers and drop me back into the real world. Contemplating my most cherished horrors, I’m astounded at their creators’ skills in weaving thought-provoking and complex topics through the narrative, leaving me revisiting the tales time after time to try and crack their codes.
In the midst of whatever on-screen/on-page nightmare I throw myself into, I feel a resounding sense of vulnerability as it becomes clear that I’m at the mercy of the story. I’m fascinated that a work of fiction can so completely own the primal, ancient emotion of fear. The best horrors don’t just knock you over the head with dread, but play you in their own good time. And for whatever reason – and it seems we all have our own – it feels good to be played.
Why do we keep coming back to horror? Maybe we never really leave the horror. The darkness resides within us all, as well as outwith. The horror genre merely gives us the opportunity to confront it on our own terms. The finest horrors are said to render us the victims, but maybe they’re the real victims.
Because we come looking for them.