There was a video rental place near my childhood home. In my preteen years, I used to ride my bike over there and rent VHS movies on my parents’ account, of which I had free reign. The place was called Vide-O-Lympics and had a decent selection of action, drama, and comedy. Where they excelled, and the reason I would ride over there on a weekly basis, was in the horror department. They hundreds and hundreds of horror films to pick from and I was in a gory heaven, absorbing the movies of Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Sam Raimi, and George Romero.
What I remember most from this time – other than the hours and hours of ghosts, monsters, demons, and gore – was my mother asking me a question I still to this day have trouble answering. I transfixed watching a group of doomed teenagers meet their bloody end when she asked, “Why do you love this stuff so much?” Back then I didn’t have an answer for her, just a shrug of my shoulders. Now, all these years and horror movies later, I’m not sure I’m any closer to answering that question. Why do we love horror so much? What about it appeals to us?
You can Google the simple question “Why do we like horror?” and get a whole host of articles that generally relate horror movies to roller coaster rides. Time and time again, you find professors, psychologists, and film critics saying that people like horror movies because they like to be scared. We like to feel our hearts beat faster in a safe, non-murderous environment. You’ll hear this again and again. We like the rush, the fear. We like the way it physically makes us feel. Our love of horror is bodily, one of reaction.
This is probably true, but there seems to be a something missing. This psychology explains a part – albeit a big part – in horror’s popularity, but it is still only a part. Reading H.P. Lovecraft doesn’t make my heart race and while a first viewing of Halloween might get the blood flowing, my annual viewing of it is hardly a scare-fest. It can’t only be about the scare, can it?
Sharon Begley of The Daily Beast might have touched on something when she dug into the psychology of horror films. In her article titled “Why Our Brains Love Horror Movies”, she concluded that perhaps it’s the predictability of horror that draws us to the genre.
“Horror films thus appeal to people who like predictability and neat ends, hold the ethical relativism: in these movies, there is no question about who the bad guy is. And despite the high and often gory body count, the films tend to have a (relatively) happy ending.”
Certainly, horror films, novels, and stories seem to follow a fairly strict formula. There’s a reason we got so many Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th sequels. It’s the same reason I rent so many Jason Statham action movies, I know what I’m going to get. Sure, there might be a genuine scare or two, a moment that makes us jump in our seat, but in general we know what’s coming and just how things are going to play out. We know who is going to live and die because we’ve seen this movie before, in one form or another.
Again, I would argue there is more to it than this. Yes, the predictable nature of the horror genre is nice. It’s a bloody, dark comfort food, no doubt. What this doesn’t explain is why I have a 3D Nightmare on Elm Street poster hanging in my office and a plastic Cthulhu statue on my desk. Our love of horror and the boogeymen who populate the genre surely goes beyond mere predictability. After all, I don’t have a Jason Statham poster hanging in my office. (Okay, actually, I do, but that is neither here nor there.) Horror has a cult of worship around it, one that is on par with any other rabidly consumed genre.
Perhaps the answer lies in my punk rock roots. I love horror for the same reason I love Black Flag and The Misfits. There’s something nihilistic about the genre, something anarchic. Embracing horror is like shouting, “I’m not afraid of death, I’m entertained by it!” Our cultural love of horror is directly related to the reason people get Grim Reaper tattoos or wear t-shirts with skulls on them. We want to show everyone that death is in our control, not the other way around. It’s a way to give order to the universe, to reign in chaos.
This mode of thinking might not apply to everyone, but there is certainly some truth to it. Horror puts a face on something that is otherwise faceless. It makes death and destruction follow a set of rules. After all, there is nothing scarier than insignificance, the idea that we are not the top of the food chain. In that sense, horror is calming and comforting. It puts order to the orderless. Lovecraft put it best in the opening of his story, The Call of Cthulhu.
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
That might be a work of fiction, but it rings true. Thinking about infinity and our place in the universe is maddening. It’s scary stuff and by addressing it — addressing death – we are puffing up our chests and standing tall in the face of that madness. Horror helps soothe our constant existential crisis. It gives us power over our place in the universe because we are naming it and addressing it.
Thinking of horror this way gives it a fable-like quality. It makes horror stories feel like the myths ancient cultures passed down through the ages. After all, so many of those tales were told because they helped people understand the things they could not explain. Horror can be seen as our modern myths, providing cautionary tales and survival guides. There’s a lesson we learn by watching them, a model for how to live and how to escape the evil that would destroy us good, moral humans.
Now, all this science, psychology, and biological reasoning are fine and dandy, but maybe the answer to my mother’s question is even simpler. If we dissect horror too much we miss one very important aspect: it looks really cool. Conceptually, Cthulhu is just cool to think about. Freddy Kruger is visually awesome — as in awe-inspiring. Horror in all its forms is fun. There’s a design element to the best of the genre that draws us in as readers, viewers, and fans. The world of horror can be a delightful place to kill time, whether it’s in the novels of Stephen King or the films of Wes Craven. It might gross some people out – my poor mother, for instance – but good horror, to me, equals a good time.
The fact is, I’m no closer to answering the question than I was all those years ago. It’s most likely that my love of horror is a mixture of the reasons above, but I might never fully know the answer. If you love horror in any of its forms, try to put into words what exactly you enjoy about it. There’s no one answer, but it’s certainly worth thinking about. Why do we love horror? We’ll have to keep watching to figure that out.
Want some suggestions for spooky cinema to see this fall? Take a look at Nerdist News’ fall horror preview.