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Why Are We Drawn to Horror Fiction?

by Amanda Nevada DeMel

The first person who asked me why I love the horror genre was Judith O’Dea, the actress who played Barbara in Night of the Living Dead. I met her at a horror convention in my teenage years. I was so nervous to meet her. I’m always anxious, and even more so when I meet new people. As you can imagine, I was shaking like a leaf. For some reason, there were no fans at her table, which allowed me to walk right up and engage with her. After telling her how much I loved the movie, she asked me that formative question. I was unprepared and babbled for a couple minutes, but she seemed to understand completely. There was something about the thrill of getting scared despite knowing that the threat is not real. There’s a sense of control that one feels from horror fiction, and there’s also a sense of pride in conquering the fear. We know that the zombies aren’t breaking through our windows when we watch Night of the Living Dead, but it’s still great fun getting paranoid and losing sleep. For me, at least.

O’Dea was delighted with my response. That’s what started my love of analyzing horror.

Horror fiction has been around for thousands of years. Of course, it wasn’t always about zombies and serial killers. As I learned from writing my undergraduate thesis, “’Walkin’ with a Dead Man over My Shoulder’: A Study of Judeo-Christian Horror Literature,” horror fiction’s roots lie in religion, in the battle between good and evil. Wheeler Winston Dixon, in his 2010 book A History of Horror, even asserts that its origins might stretch back to “the beginning of the narrative itself, or at least as far back as the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2000 B.C.).” Over the millennia, the genre has transformed from a method of teaching and warning to a medium of entertainment and shock. But why has it stuck around for so long? Why do we enjoy feeling frightened?

There are plenty of theories. Aside from Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay “The Uncanny” and Julia Kristeva’s 1980 book Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, numerous scholars have tried to parse the appeal of the genre from psychological, literary, cinematic, and other angles. One often-cited critical text about the horror genre is Noel Carroll’s 1987 article “The Nature of Horror.” Carroll suggests that art-horror (his term for the horror fiction genre) attracts audiences because of curiosity. Carroll argues that we engage with art-horror in order to know about creatures that threaten us and evoke revulsion, nausea, and disgust. More than that, he asserts that we want to know how to destroy these creatures. A perfect example is Night of the Living Dead, in which the zombies rip apart people off-screen and feast on their innards on-screen. The final few minutes of the film reveal the crucial information about destruction: the zombies can be defeated by a shot in the head. Although applicable to many works of art-horror, Carroll does not account for the complexity of emotions inspired by horror, namely “the ways in which cognitive pleasure can outweigh affective pain, especially in repeated viewings or readings where the element of curiosity is lessened,” as Katerina Bantinaki so eloquently states in her 2012 article “The Paradox of Horror: Fear as a Positive Emotion”. Carroll also does not account for the rewatch/reread factor, in which the curiosity is gone but the thrill remains.

I identify with many points from Bantinaki. She states that there are multiple benefits of engaging with horror fiction, much like how children engage in “risk play” to test boundaries and confront fear. I remember watching Mars Attacks! with my father as a child. The design of the aliens haunted me in so many recurring nightmares, but I couldn’t look away. Of course, when I watched it again many years later, I realized that it was actually a hilarious movie. The Martians are still creepy, though. Similar to children playing a game, we control our experiences when we engage with horror fiction. In a sense more mature than childhood interactions, controlling the agent of our fear can also be seen as a type of masochism (which Bantinaki references in a kink-shaming way, but which I do not), in that we can stop the pain when it gets to be too much. She also addresses that our experiences are very personal and individual. She says that fear is not necessarily a negative experience, but that the important part to remember is how the value of the experience, positive or negative, “matters to the agent.” By accounting for individual interests, she goes beyond the generalizations stated by Carroll and acknowledges the complexity of consuming media. I personally love when media grosses me out (to an extent) and makes me unable to sleep because of suspicious shadows on my walls, but my mother, meanwhile, does not. There is not one genre that is innately superior. Who’s to say that enjoyment based in humor, for example, is better or worse than enjoyment based in terror? Moreover, according to Bantinaki, horror often targets our “primal fears” and “unveil[s] what in real life we repress.” Horror fiction can therefore provide an outlet for emotions that cause us shame or guilt, and it can also serve as an egress for impulses that are outright unhealthy (such as wanting to hurt others).

Branching off the outlet point of view, another scholar suggests that horror provides comfort to its devoted audience. In 1980, Joanna Russ, writing in “On the Fascination of Horror-Stories, Including Lovecraft’s”, begins with an anecdote about a group of science fiction fans reminiscing about their favorite scary stories from childhood. This ties back into children’s risk play. One of my cherished memories is from third grade, when my father caught me reading a Junie B. Jones book, which he called a “baby book.” He went out and bought a collection of all of Edgar Allan Poe’s works. I vividly remember “The Conqueror Worm” in particular. I didn’t understand all of what I read that day, or most of it, really, but I was so much more engrossed by the writing of Poe than I was by that of Barbara Park. After Russ talks about others’ experiences with childhood horror, she reviews her own experiences reading H.P. Lovecraft at a young age and deciding that the grotesque fictional situations were “infinitely preferable to the repressions of the 1950s and the suburban future [she] was supposedly headed for.” Lovecraft served as both an escape and an outlet for Russ. In her article, she argues that scholars leave out key concepts when they only concentrate on the negative feelings that arise from engaging with horror fiction, “like the relation of self to other or the ontological status of the self.” In other words, horror can make the reader or viewer reflect on themselves, their situations, their society, and the essence of being. More than just providing a mirror for reality, though, horror reminds us that “Someone has been here before. You’re not alone,” due to its frequent themes of social criticism. There is a sense of comfort in witnessing the fictional struggles of others, especially when one can identify with the struggling character(s). The author even references Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 haunting short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which is sadly still relevant to present-day issues, and which is a focal point of another article about horror fiction that I am currently writing.

Horror is more than getting scared. It’s about curiosity, control, bravery, comfort, and camaraderie. This isn’t to say that horror can’t be enjoyed simply for the hell of it, of course. Appreciating media without introspection is perfectly valid. There is certainly joy in mindless horror, but, as you may glean from this article, the deeper works attract me more. Some people like to analyze. What about you? Do you have any theories about the compelling nature of horror? What draws you to the genre?

A head shot of Amanda Nevada DeMel
Amanda Nevada DeMel

Amanda Nevada DeMel is a born-and-raised New Yorker, though she currently lives in New Jersey. Aside from being a lifelong reader and visual artist, she has been relentlessly writing since she was thirteen years old. Her favorite genre is horror, thanks to her father and much to the confusion of her mother. She especially appreciates media that can simultaneously scare her and make her cry. Amanda also loves reptiles, taboo subjects, and challenging convention. You can find her online at http://amandanevadademel.weebly.com/

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