This article is the first part in a series. Click here for the second part.
If you have lived life long enough, you are bound to have heard the question at least a dozen times before: why do we enjoy horror? Because however bad it rattles them, however late it keeps them up at night, however often they check their shower for a knife-wielding psychopath on account of Alfred Hitchcock, people enjoy horror. People love hair-raising and diabolical tales around a campfire at midnight. People love horror movies, horror video games, horror stories shared in dark corners of the Internet, in that lovable modern genre called ‘creepypasta’.
Apparently, people love to be afraid, just as much as they hate it. Humans are naturally attracted to experiences that make their hearts pound, and release all those good chemicals in the brain which we have been told horror triggers. Science, science, science, something about evolution, chemistry, brain, bingo. Question answered. Now go away.
Perhaps that’s where you wanted to stop. Perhaps you were hoping for a simple and conventional answer. But if you were hoping for a conventional answer, you have come to the wrong place. Because I am of the very firm conviction that we do not love being afraid. It seems quite obvious to me that we hate it; nobody has ever enjoyed being stalked. Nobody has ever asked to be startled on purpose.
At this point, I am sure someone will raise the point that people do, actually, face terrifying experiences on purpose: that people ride roller coasters even if they are terrified, they go to haunted houses where actors are paid to jump out and frighten them, that even in daredevil sports and risky endeavors such as hiking a mountain or asking for a raise, people face fears all the time.
But surely there is a fairly simple explanation of these facts: people love victory. They love the satisfaction of facing fear, and winning in the end. Just as the mountain hiker loves the feeling of reaching a summit, so the BASE jumper loves the feeling of landing safely on the ground, and so the ambitious employee loves the feeling of being promoted.
But do any of these people actually enjoy the experience of being afraid? Or is it the very displeasure of that experience which makes victory all the sweeter? I think the second explanation is correct. Fear, without any payoff, is not enjoyable.
The greatest proof of this is the jumpscare. That is to say, nobody enjoys jumpscares. I claim this emphatically, without feeling overly-general or ignorant, because in my life, I have never met a single person who liked them. Nobody who watched Ghost Car has ever told me afterwards that the viewing was a positive experience (you have been duly warned).
If you are delighted by the sensation of being obnoxiously and spontaneously frightened out of your wits by Internet trolls, this article will not speak to you. But if – like most people – you aren’t fond of that experience, read on.
Notice how the question has changed: the title of this article is, ‘Why do people enjoy horror?’ And instead of answering or introducing the question, I have tackled the question, ‘Why do people enjoy being afraid?’. And I have answered that people don’t enjoy being afraid at all. Fear may be sought because it is a gateway to some other pleasure, but in itself, is not desirable.
I have changed the subject on purpose, because fear and horror are often equivocated. Fear is an emotion; horror is a narrative genre which finds expression in many artistic media. It encompasses campfire ghost stories, or the Internet equivalent of such tales (creepypastas), cinematic psychological thrillers, novels by Stephen King, video games like Resident Evil, and the Gothic works of Romantic authors like Mary Shelley, or the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe.
The Difference Between Fear and Horror
The excitation of fear may be a necessary element in horror, but it is not the only element: if it were, we wouldn’t like it. I have spent the first section of this article arguing that point so we can get beyond fear, to the root of the reason we enjoy horror.
Horror provokes the feeling that there is something more to the world than we can actually see – that a house is not merely dark, and gloomy, but haunted. That the forest is not just hard to navigate by night and difficult to see, but also populated with monsters. That the sounds we hear outside our tents under the moonlit sky are more than the scraping of tree branches in the wind, but malevolent forces bent on destruction.
Horror always involves the conversion of something ordinary into something extraordinary. Take for instance the famous Internet tale, Ben Drowned. In case you are not familiar, Ben Drowned is the story of a college student who buys a black market copy of the video game Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. The game begins to glitch, and a mysterious save file called ‘Ben Drowned’ reappears whenever it is deleted. It soon becomes abundantly clear that a deceased owner of the game possesses its cartridge.
Ben Drowned – like almost every creepypasta – takes elements from the familiar world, and gives them decidedly unfamiliar inhabitants, qualities, or powers.
Lest we lose ourselves in the realm of poorly written Internet fiction, let’s explore something with greater cultural status, such as Stephen King’s The Shining. When Jack Torrance becomes winter caretaker at an isolated Colorado resort, his son begins to have visions of ghosts, premonitions, and gains telepathic powers. The ominous mood of The Shining comes precisely from an otherwise mundane environment, imbued with supernormal qualities.
That is the reason we love horror, and if you are astute, you may note that this is the very reason we love many things which aren’t horrific. Fantasy is a genre which works in precisely the same way. Fantasy tells us that between the platforms 9 and 10, there is a platform 9 3/4 which leads to a hidden train station, and a world of magic; that the wardrobe on the second floor of a country home opens to a snowy land never seen by human beings.
And so, while fantasy and horror are obviously very different genres, we seem to love them for the same uncanny but riveting idea which they suggest to us, never expressed better than it was by Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy
I propose that we enjoy Horror for the thrill of temporary relief from our bland, materialist lives. We love the surrender of our imaginations to something outside ourselves, hidden just beyond the familiar, buried beneath the mundane. When we read horror – as with fantasy – something invisible becomes tangible, for a brief but delicious moment, to our minds.
That can’t be all…
The answer, I confess, is not yet wholly satisfactory. It may be only too obvious that horror is fascinating because it suggests that the ordinary is imbued with extraordinary properties. I have already admitted that the same is true for fantasy.
So, why horror in particular? To put it another way, why horror instead of fantasy? Why would one very specific genre of story exist, when another serves the same purpose adequately? Certainly, it could come down to a question of taste – that some people prefer the generally darker tone of a horror story to the brighter tone of a fantasy.
But then, in that case, why the difference of taste? And why do some people profess a taste for both?
Before answering that, we will discuss the difference between horror and fantasy as genres, and instances in which these genres co-existed.
To read the next article in this series, click here.