The Satisfaction of Horror: A Memoir

Why people like the horror genre, and my own personal experience of becoming a fan.

As a kid, I loved the Scary Stories series by Alvin Schwartz. Back then, if you had asked if I enjoyed them, I would have sworn against it. Just looking at the books made my skin crawl. Nevertheless, I would read them, repeatedly. The tales and the images were responsible for abundant sleepless nights.

More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. Photo by Social Thoughts

Growing up, I would avoid scary films–or so I claimed. Having a brother who watched all of the Alien and Predator films while I continually closed my eyes would give the impression that horror was never my cup of tea.

One night, I slept over a friend’s house. Before going to bed, she optimistically mentioned having a copy of Halloween H20. Perhaps, I didn’t want to be a let down, or maybe on an unconscious level I truly did want to see it. In any event, I allowed her to do as she pleased. As expected, my eyes stayed open the entire night. Afterwards, I spent the next several years obsessed with Michael Myers.

Years later, I accompanied my family to a “haunted” event. A bus travels to a partially-enclosed area filled with actors who are paid to scare visitors. Guess which character not only jumped out of the woods, but chose to stand an inch in front of yours truly?

Thanks for the memorable Halloween trip, mom!

How I Came to Love Horror

There have been occasions when I have attempted to watch scary movies, as a way to see if was possible. In 2008, I decided to watch part of Hannibal Rising while it was on television. Previously, I had seen The Silence of the Lambs, but I was unable to finish it due to the overwhelming fear brought on by the kidnapping scene. Yes, I am that easily affected; however, I was unaware that the backstory of Hannibal Lecter was based around WWII.

When I first tuned into Hannibal Rising, it happened to be playing that part of the story. It intrigued me because while I am repulsed by the actions of the Nazis, I’m inspired by the bravery of the survivors. I wanted to see where the story was going. Without giving too much away, learning that the reason behind Hannibal’s behavior is due to treatment experienced by Nazi collaborators made me respect him. I found myself rooting for a vicious character because he was killing criminals who had gotten away.

The Pleasure of Horror

Each horror fan may enjoy the genre for a different reason. There exist many articles on the topic, but none have solved the mystery. One such source is Mark D. Griffiths’ article “Why Do We Like Watching Scary Films?” His research has uncovered explanations such as a relief in the psychological experiences of what is happening on the screen, while knowing that it is fiction:

The answer that McCauley came up with was that the fictional nature of horror films affords viewers a sense of control by placing psychological distance between them and the violent acts they have witnessed. Most people who view horror movies understand that the filmed events are unreal, which furnishes them with psychological distance from the horror portrayed in the film.

The essay “Why We Crave Horror Movies” by Stephen King goes into history. Who better to write on the topic than King? To him, horror is the opposite of the socially acceptable. He relates horror films to the history of watching public executions:

“…the horror film has become the modern version of the public lynching”

para.5, King.

No matter how much society may try to prevent us from recognizing a twisted side of ourselves, it remains; otherwise, why would we ever do harm to another? Stephen King makes a connection between our childhood selves when adults reward positive behavior, yet fail to strip us entirely of bad intention. All it does is encourage us to keep those times for when we’re alone:

“But anticivilization emotions don’t go away, and they demand periodic exercise”

para.10, King.

In an interview with Charlie Rose, King says that horror is a way to portray what isn’t permissible. The more wrong that something is the more attractive. One can see this in the controversy surrounding the Scary Stories series by Alvin Schwartz, when the very banning of the books made them more alluring:

“Something that’s forbidden…’come with me and I will say things to you that nobody else will say, and I will show you things that nobody else is.”

Furthermore, he relates horror with comedy. It’s an outlet to show things that would not be displayed otherwise. The medium is not important:

“It shares the same attraction as comedy, which says the same thing…’I’m going to show you something that you haven’t seen before.’”

As someone experienced with social rejection throughout most of their schooling, Stephen King’s Carrie was easy for me to connect with – this may be a bit of a cliché by now. Admittedly, I have not read the entire book, but I have seen two adaptations: the original from 1976 with Sissy Spacek and the 2002 television version with Angela Bettis.

The plot is what counts: A nervous and quiet teen who everyone mocks. Then, one day, it goes too far. It inspires her to use her hidden abilities for gruesome revenge. Society can easily begin the debate of how this connects with real-life events of outcasts taking it upon themselves to seek revenge on the student body, but most horror fans are not in favor of real-life violence, and I’m not an exception.

Similar to Carrie is another 2002 Angela Bettis film, May. May’s story is like if we followed Carrie a few years after prom, but this time there’s no hidden secret power. May has plenty of difficulty making friends. Throughout the film, she finds people willing to embrace her weirdness; unfortunately, every time she seems to have finally found acceptance, one by one, they turn against her. When she is all alone, again, she reaches out to one more stranger. When they too reject her, she has had enough.

My own story of how I came to love horror may not answer everything about why others like horror; hopefully, it does give some insight, though. We’re misunderstood. We see beauty in the disturbing, and in the dark. We aren’t sick.

Well, not entirely….

For more on the Scary Stories children’s horror series and Alvin Schwartz, please, refer to my article “The Social Effect of Alvin Schwartz’ Scary Stories.”

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