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Why Do We Read Horror?

I wasn’t forced to write horror. I didn’t choose that genre — especially as a Christian! — because it’s a hot genre. I don’t read horror as a psychological Shining-1outworking of some hidden rage or trauma (at least, I don’t think so).

Still, horror fiction holds a special place in my heart.

But why?

After the Boston Marathon bombing, I read several articles that made me sick to my stomach. The carnage, the mutilation. One of the many things that crossed my mind was why, in a world full of horrors, would someone want to write or read fictional horror? Escapism and sugary, feel-good tales seem more in order. Don’t they?

Perhaps this is why people look aslant at you when you say you write or read horror. As if you’re a real sicko. It’s been suggested that “some self-published authors have pulled away from marketing their books as horror because they sell better when labeled as other genres.” In other words, the splatter crowd has given us a bad name. Frankly, I think the person who enjoys watching / reading about torture, dessication, and decapitation, has issues.

But, realistically, it’s a fine line.

While physical horrors are often a part of horror tales, I don’t read them for such. I’m much happier being creeped out rather than grossed out.

Again, why?

In defining horror fiction, the Horror Writers Association says this:

As children, we might be afraid of the shadows looming from a half-closed closet door or of the monster we believe lies under the bed. Terrors of the imagination run wild at that age. As adults, our fears become more sophisticated, more grounded in worldly events. They become the death of a loved one, the terminal illness of a small child, the fear of our lives running out of our control. Horror, by nature, is a personal touch — an intrusion into our comfort levels. It speaks of the human condition and forcibly reminds us of how little we actually know and understand. (bold mine)

In his Danse Macabre, Stephen King strikes a similar note, describing the genre as appealing to our primal fears, seeking to arouse what he called “phobic pressure points.”

The genre we’re talking about, whether it be in terms of books, film, or TV, is really all one: make-believe horrors. And one of the questions that frequently comes up, asked by people who have grasped the paradox (but perhaps not fully articulated it in their own minds) is: Why do you want to make up horrible things when there is so much real horror in the world?

The answer seems to be that we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones. With the endless inventiveness of humankind, we grasp the very elements which are so divisive and destructive and try to turn them into tools — to dismantle themselves. The term catharsis is as old as Greek drama, and it has been used rather too glibly by some practitioners in my field to justify what they do, but it still has its limited uses here. The dream of horror is in itself an out-letting and a lancing. . . and it may well be that the mass-media dream of horror can sometimes become a nationwide analyst’s couch.

Granted, this may be complete misdirection, an attempt to justify what is really prurient and warped. However, it does capture, in part, why I read and write horror. On the one hand, horror “speaks of the human condition and forcibly reminds us of how little we actually know and understand.” Horror takes us to the brink of some psychological precipice. Or cesspool. On the other, it is cathartic and helps us “cope with the real [horrors].” Yes, it can also desensitize us. But the horror genre can also help us look into the face of evil and existential terror, and live to speak about it.

Or, at least, “lance” the boil inside us.

My son Jonathan is an ER Tech (Emergency Room Technician). I often talk to him about the things he sees at work. I don’t do this because I find enjoyment in grotesqueness. For one thing, there is no virtue in closing my eyes to the misery of human existence. Americans would be better off having seen in detail the horrors of 9/11. Instead, the media shelters us, showering us with PC lingo and heroic stories. I don’t want to be one who blinks when evil rears its head. Terrorists. Let me see them and those left in their wake.

But what puzzles me even more than Tales from the ER, are the people who work there. The nurses and doctors who can face these horrors without repulsion, and act. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but I read and write horror for a similar reason. There are monsters and monstrosities in our world, mystery and mayhem. Fairy tales are okay. But right now, inside your skin, is about 5.6 liters of blood. The sheath that protects it is rather thin. And walking shoulder to shoulder with you, each day, are angels and devils, suicide bombers and others of evil intent.

Like that doctor, I will not look away.

If you write or read horror, if you appreciate, even seek out, scary movies and stories, I have one question for you: Why?

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{ 25 comments… add one }
  • Greg Mitchell May 2, 2013, 5:52 AM

    I’ve gone on at great lengths about this very subject in various interviews (and explaining to church and family members), but yeah, you hit it for me. As I’ve said before, I didn’t know what real fear was until I had kids. My girls are 2 and 6 right now and I’m increasingly fearful for them every second of the day. Every morning we send my oldest to first grade and I’m praying that some psycho with a gun isn’t going to find her wandering the halls. We live in a sick, depraved and outright terrifying reality–but horror is a chance for me to escape to a world of monsters, but one that I control. I know the rules for killing a vampire or a werewolf–much harder is discerning who in this real world are a danger to me and my family, and what to do about them. Horror is a place to conquer my fears, a place to vent my aggression at my own helplessness, and, ultimately, a place where I come to God seeking comfort in a world gone mad. I find solace in horror, I find strength, I find hope.

  • Kat Heckenbach May 2, 2013, 6:07 AM

    Like you, I don’t like splatterpunk horror either. I never got into slasher movies. I don’t want to see mindless gore and killing. That is *not* horror to me. For me, horror is psychological, and creepy.

    And I have the same reasons for reading it. I think horror is a way for me to look for the light in the darkness, and find ways to overcome it. To prove to myself that it CAN be overcome.

    Which brings me to this: I thought it was kinda funny that you mention fairy tales as if they are the light, fun side of fiction. That’s not what they were originally, and I’m seeing a trend in them turning back to their original darkness. Anyway, before I saw that mention in here, what popped into my mind was G.K. Chesterson’s quote: ‘Fairy tales don’t tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.” Which I think sums up your/our reasons for reading horror rather nicely.

    • Mike Duran May 2, 2013, 9:07 AM

      That’s a great quote, Kat. Thanks for your thoughts.

      • Katherine Coble May 3, 2013, 7:51 PM

        Fairy tales and folklore are my favourite horror stories. The old school fairy tales with children baked in pies and toothless crones…those are the tales that grab me.

  • Thomas Smith May 2, 2013, 6:41 AM

    As an active member of the Horror Writers Association, I have written horror (among other things) for over 20 years. In reality, horror is not so much a genre as an emotion like love, wonder, terror, elation, bewilderment, and countless others. It became a “genre” in the late 70s and early 80s when the marketing world realized that horror sells. From Dante Alighieri to Brian Keene people have written about the horrific for centuries because the emotion causes us to think. It shows us the difference between evil and badness. And a well told tale of horror (not the cut and slash torture garbage that is little more than gore for gore’s sake) can give us hope. When the monster has been defeated by the least likely member of the community; when the town drunk makes the ultimate sacrifice to save the town; when against all odds good defeats evil; it is a reminder that in a society when bombing becomes a political statement and parents sell their children for drug money, there is still hope. And tales of the horrific show it in ways that saving the ranch from the evil cartel and finding love when you least expect it can’t. Light can illuminate the gloom and banish the darkness.

  • Kessie May 2, 2013, 6:55 AM

    Without horror, how would other genres tap into what’s scary? Doctor Who has major horror elements–he Weeping Angels, the Silence, even Prisoner Zero played into the primal fear of he movement at the corner of your eye. Harry Potter had horror elements–like the Dementors, or Voldemort’s resurrection.

    While I’m not much of a fan of horror itself, it’s great when used as a seasoning in other genres. It seems to get away from its own cliches, too.

  • Jill May 2, 2013, 7:02 AM

    You’re definitely back on your game with this blog post (okay, maybe I’m a little prejudiced, but….) This theme you’ve begun to develop here reminds of Edmund Burke’s On the Sublime and Beautiful, and if you haven’t read it, you should run out and do so right now. That right there–that philosophy written by a very young man (I think he was about 19 when he wrote it) is the foundation of your genre. It was being developed in his time, and he explained why it was so appealing, except he called it “terror” rather than “horror”. He also explains why it ceases to become appealing, and he calls that “horror” (see: slasher films for modern day example). In our day, we’ve combined these two terms and have confused issues a little.

    • Mike Duran May 2, 2013, 2:50 PM

      Thanks, Jill. Just bought it on Amazon.

      • Jill May 2, 2013, 4:12 PM

        Just be aware that it has very 18th C language. 🙂 But you probably already know that Edmund Burke was considered the first philosopher of “conservative” values.

  • Tony May 2, 2013, 8:57 AM

    I like the answer given here. But honestly, I’m not entirely sure why I like the horror genre. Maybe it’s nostalgia. I was scared of a lot of things as a kid, and I watched a lot of horror then because my parents enjoyed it, and my brothers and I used to sit around and tell scary stories to creep each other out. Mom would tell us ghost stories too. About things she’d actually seen or thought she’d seen. Good times.

    I love the genre, probably, because it reminds me of (the good parts of) my childhood. Odd as that sounds.

  • Paula Cappa May 2, 2013, 9:00 AM

    Horror vs. terror. That’s a good point, Jill. I write soft-core horror or “quiet horror.” I prefer to be scared, haunted, spooked in stories rather than grossed out with slasher and bloody gore action. Give me a psychological terror any day. But WHY do we like to be scared? Maybe it’s the safety of fiction that allows us to enter the darkness. Evil exists in our world here so playing with it in fiction or movies is like opening a valve and releasing. The emails and comments I get from readers of my classic Tales of Terror blog often mention they like to read the stories at night when the atmosphere can enhance the mood. I guess it’s all about feeling, sensing, experiencing heightened awareness and still remaining safe. Boo!

  • Kevin Lucia May 2, 2013, 9:01 AM

    For all the reasons you mentioned. Definitely. Halfway through “Danse Macabre” and loving it. Also, Noel Carroll’s Philosophy of Horror was excellent, also.

  • Kevin Lucia May 2, 2013, 9:03 AM

    Anne Radcliffe also spoke of terror versus horror, and which was the “higher” form of art: http://www.litgothic.com/Texts/radcliffe_sup.pdf

  • Mark Carver May 2, 2013, 9:07 AM

    I enjoy reading books that are horror+something else, like horror/sci-fi, horror/mystery, etc. My writing also often contains horrific elements but its not strictly horror. For me, it’s kind of like adding hot sauce to a dish. My real life (and the lives of many if not most people) has romance, mild suspense, history, sci-fi (smartphones! ereaders!), and of course horror (usually manifested as worry about family). What it doesn’t have is action violence and make-believe, creepy horror.

    Now I’m very grateful for this fact and I greatly appreciate my quiet normal life, but when I write, I am looking to explore worlds that I’ve never experienced, even if it’s right next door to mine. Writing horror is a way I can safely jolt my nerves without the actual trauma of going through what I type out. It’s transportive, kind of like a roller coaster. You feel like you are inches from death but in reality, it’s perfectly safe (most of the time) and at the end, you’re left with wind-blown hair, a smile on your face, and an overdose of adrenaline.

    Of course, the danger comes when people seek out that high through destructive means, and it’s easy to get swallowed up in the horror vortex. Several of my friends enjoy reading things that should never be printed, but it took them a while to get to that point. I think philosophical ponderings on why horror appeals to oneself can help the reader stay grounded and balanced while still enjoying their creepy diet.

  • Paula Cappa May 2, 2013, 3:16 PM

    May I add a note? Hope this is okay, Mike. May is National Short Story Month. And that includes horror short reads too, Christian short stories, whatever. We short story writers and readers are encouraging everyone to read, review, comment, blog, and tweet about short stories this month. Please join the movement to increase awareness of National Short Story Month and advocate reading, reading, reading!


  • Natalie Sharpston May 2, 2013, 8:45 PM

    Some horror fiction exposes the huge contrast between light and darkness. There is no confusion, no grays, no maybes, and somehow that’s comforting. The reality of good vs. evil – a battle I grow increasingly aware of the older I get (I’m 43) – is why Dean Koontz is one of my all time favorite authors. His suspense thrillers contain elements of horror and the supernatural, often portraying the battle between good and evil—but good always prevails. Always. It encourages me in my faith. When all is said and done, Satan wins a lot of battles but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob wins the war. There is hope.

    I love this quote from an article in the National Catholic Register, “Chatting With Koontz About Faith,” March 2007:
    “Avoiding the recognition of evil is profoundly sinful. There is a purpose and meaning in our lives, and that purpose includes confronting evil, not succumbing to it.”

    • Mike Duran May 4, 2013, 5:44 AM

      Natalie, that’s a terrific interview. Some great quotes in there. Interesting that he references 9/11 (as I did in this post) as an example of not looking away from the horror. Thanks for the link!

  • Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) May 3, 2013, 11:52 AM

    cathartic. Okay. I have spent decades asking people why they like to be scared (I don’t, adrenaline makes me sick) and never understood. These last five years I have tried reading horror and have come to like Dean Koontz because his characters fight back and I know that ultimately they will win. I like Perretti’s The Oath because it was obviously metaphorical, though I had to rush by some pages. And I can cope with Mike’s horror.
    I used to work in a hospital and coped easily with blood and body parts. Once I had children I lost that ability to distance myself so I could do good work. I nearly lost it when I took my oldest son into the ER with his ear half torn off. Now I know why my mother made me go in and hold my brother’s hand when he was having his chin stitched up. She couldn’t do it. I was so relieved when my husband replaced me in the ER. When you work in ER you have to be able to see everything that comes in as an interesting puzzle, not a horror. I used to be Interested in children with genetic anomalies. After raising a multipy-handicapped child, I weep too hard for the parents to be able to draw blood as well as I used to for lab tests on these kids. I don’t know if I will ever be able to go back to work in the lab. Maybe if the phlebotomy part is separated out as they seem to be in large hospitals today.

  • D.M. Dutcher May 3, 2013, 6:20 PM

    I’ve read horror since I was a young child, actually. My first books were Roger Elwood’s anthologies of monsters, and the superb Baleful Beasts and Eerie Creatures by Andre Norton. Roger Elwood was an interesting case because he published several anthologies that spooked the hell out of kids and yet also was a Christian who brought a horror edge to even his religious work. He’s more or less forgotten now, but books like Angelwalk, Dwellers, The Christening, and The Wandering were probably the first true Christian horror books released for that market.

    I think as a child and teen, I read them partly for the shivers, and eventually for the transgressive act of a straight-laced “good” bookworm reading horror. I stopped, and I still read it now, but ironically it’s hard for it to scare me; “real” ghost stories though give me the chills. The slasher genre and jump scares don’t appeal to me. I like eerieness and surrealism, I guess.

  • Katherine Coble May 3, 2013, 7:43 PM

    I like horror because I like legends/folklore. And oddly enough most of the things people pass on as folklore is done so in stories that frighten.

    I’m not as much like other consumers of horror in that I don’t enjoy the sensation of fright. I more want to know why the Overlook is haunted, or the Derry Standpipe.

  • Katherine Coble May 3, 2013, 7:49 PM

    Oops…forgot to add:

    My uncle was for many years the chief of surgery at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis.

    He has been one of those who stands fast and doesn’t look away from the horrors of blood.

    Funnily enough I always want to make him a character in a book. As a teenager in the 1950s he sent away for a kit from the back of Boys Life magazine, took over a creepy corner in the basement of my grandparents’ 120 year old farmhouse and did taxidermy for hours.

    I find that to be all shivery.

  • Eric Seibert May 11, 2013, 4:20 PM

    I was introduced to your blog recently by my wife. And I have found many of your posts to be thought provoking and intriguing. I am a pastor of a small church in the corn country of IL. As I took the position a few years ago I moved from the suburbs of Chicago to a land where grain elevators out number homes and overshadow even our small church. After I moved in I traveled to the nearest town that warranted having a video rental store for the specific purpose of viewing Steven King’s, Children of the Corn, not for the horror of it, but for the sheer irony.

    Now I am intrigued by your description of Horror as a “catharsis”. That is, as a purging, or a lancing, which I take to mean that one would hope to discharge a poison or toxin from their lives. Yet, don’t you think this to be a bit naive?

    It is one thing to read of evil, it is another to actually experience it. I think your thoughts on desensitization may be closer to the mark.

    I also am a father, and I can sympathize with the fears of others when they think of what may happen to their children as a result of evil in the world. But for most of us, that is not where the real battle lies. And since almost none of those fears will be realized, statistically speaking, to fear them is a useless waste of energy. I know you are a Christian and that you know that one of Jesus’ commands to the disciples was not to fear the world, or what man may do; Mt 10:28.

    What I fear most in this world, is not what others may do to me, but what I am capable of doing to others. That I may harm or injure others in some way is a not a useless fear but an acute awareness that evil is not something necessarily out there, but something in here, in me. Like the addict who with increased exposure gains and increased tolerance, I don’t know that exposure or catharsis is the cure.

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