As young as I can remember, Halloween was always my favorite holiday. I loved the costumes, the candy, and, most importantly, things that were scary. I read Goosebumps books through my childhood for the same reason: because they scared me. I was not introduced to horror movies until later in my adolescence (after my parents’ divorce when TV restrictions lifted at one house), but once I saw my first horror movie (Scream), I was irrevocably hooked.
Like my childhood love of Halloween and R.L. Stine horror juvenile novels, I loved horror because it scared me.
Horror, as a genre, is defined and designed to shock, disgust, disturb, unnerve, repulse. It is media created to upset, which begs the question, why do we love it? Why do we seek it out? Why do we enjoy it? Logically, horror should be something we all strive to avoid in our lives, yet there are many, like myself, who seek it out and deeply enjoy it. Maybe even craft a lifestyle out of it.
So what in these special people, these horrorphiles, allows us to draw pleasure from something dark or traumatic?
Real life fear calls up adrenaline in us. It impassions us to respond to a threat with either fight or flight. It is a rush that is designed to inspire us to act, to keep us alive. However, fear need not be activated by a real life situation. If horror is done right, a movie, book, or TV show can conjure up that same heart-pounding anxiety.
Heart-pounding anxiety is not the draw though. It is the relief from that created pressure that makes it fun. Quivering on the edge of our seats, gnawing off the ends of our fingertips is only pleasurable when it is over, when we feel the euphoric flood of that apprehension being released. That euphoria can be near addictive for some (read: me).
Those fight or flight instincts that fear speaks to reside in us from less evolved days. These instincts were/are designed to keep us alive through dangerous situations. However, we civilized humans have largely evolved past the daily need for such instincts. Instead, these predispositions lay dormant and unused in the backs of our brains, twiddling their thumbs as our minds engage in deciding what to order at Starbucks and the faster route to drive to the kid’s soccer game.
Finding fear to exercise these biologic scripts, however, provides them an outlet. Horror engages a part of our brain left largely neglected on the day to day, activates channels usually left in wait of some errant and unfortunate life situation.
Exercising our instincts and experiencing the rush of adrenaline is all well and good, but who wants to take the real risk? Sure, there are extreme sports and such for that, but maybe you are less daring.
Maybe you can get your fix from the safety of your couch. Horror offers that safe flirtation with danger, a brief tryst within your mind.
We can step inside a dangerous situation (be it being hunted by a vicious serial killer or haunted by a relentless spirit or fighting against the hordes of the undead); we can slip on the strife of the characters without any of the actual danger or threats involved. The serial killer will not slowly walk after us with a machete; the ghost will not manifest in the dark corner of our closet; the zombies will not begin fumbling against our windows. We can see; we can empathize; we can imagine, all while completely safe and comfortable, perhaps with a bowl of popcorn or a beer.
Horror allows us to be scared and reap all the physical and psychological benefits of fear and relief without actually entertaining any real risk.
The ability of horror to scare us and engage our fear responses also feeds into the issue of perspective. Horror allows us to dabble in the worst life has to offer—the most graphic of deaths, the most horrific of scenarios, the darkest of human nature. And while we get to entertain these morbid little nuggets safely from our homes, we also get reminded of how non-horrific our real lives are. Walking in the darkness makes the light all the brighter. And if one has a particularly traumatic real life, horror might offer the comfort of familiarity.
As I sat on that couch in my darkened family room for my first horror viewing, the reflections of screaming teenagers flickering against my face, I was rapt. As Ghostface wiped the blood off his knife and chased after his next victim, my heart was pounding; my hands were twitching in and out of fists. I was elated with a precarious blend of excitement and empathetic fear. And when the danger passed on the screen and the story wrapped itself up, I was left feeling simply entertained.
Darkness is fascinating. We all know it exists in the daily world, most often cloaked and behind, obscured and fluffed. A dabbling with this other world of horror permits us with the rush and relief of adrenaline, the exercise of dormant fear instincts, the ability to safely play with the dangerous in our minds, and the reminder that our real lives could always be worse.
For me, horror serves all these purposes and also speaks to the darker, most savage part of my soul, making it feel understood and at home. The thrill of being scared sates my bored primal instincts and quenches my timid thirst for risk. The twisted morbidity makes my mind feel understood while reminding me to be glad such things only reside in my mind and not out in my life.
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