Because of it being Halloween and all, I’ve been thinking a lot about horror. Every year, we pay millions of dollars to be frightened in some way; to be made uncomfortable. I mean, otherwise, our entire American existence is based around safety and comfort–from remote controls to gated communities–to the point that it’s often ridiculous. (I’m looking at you, Snuggie.) Yet we stand in line for hours to ride roller coasters, pay money to go on ghost tours, go skydiving and, yes, we devour gobs of scary books and movies.
Life is fragile, and it’s short. We spend a lot of time coming up with ways not to have to think about that, but we are all too aware this is true. To top it off, there’s at least a bazillion ways to die (actual number may vary), and there’s not enough money, booze or sex to stop that train. We’re powerless. What do we do with such a psychological dilemma? We’ve already said facing that existential issue head on is out of the question for most people, but it’s there and its not going away. So, we do what humans do best: we try to deal with it without actually having to deal with it. And that’s what I think horror is all about.
Someone, somewhere, with too much time and a government grant on their hands, said that there are seventeen negative news stories for every kitten found to have Cancer-curing meow story. Some have said that’s because we’re bastards, but I think it’s a form of catharsis. Part of us despises hearing bad news, because, as fellow human beings, we empathize. But another part of us is fascinated by it. Not because we’re bastards, but because we are curious. Death is ubiquitous and isn’t known for making appointments. So, it enthralls us. And when we hear that this monster, so silent in our own lives, has spoken, we want to hear. We want to see the path of destruction it left behind so that we can better understand it. Because, part of us feels like that if we can understand it, we can control it.
I think it’s for the same reasons that we love horror. We get to sit down for an hour and a half and watch death do his thing (the scary part) then get made a fool of by someone in the end (the therapeutic part). While I don’t think these are the best ways to deal with such issues, I think stories can have a therapeutic effect. Chesterton said, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Through horror, we can–within the relative safety of our own homes–explore our greatest fears. We get a peek into that mysterious realm without having to, well, die to do so.
Horror not only lets us wrap our minds around these ideas, it gives us a sense that there is hope. Every time the mask-wearing, hatchet-toting enemy is defeated, we pump our fists in celebration, not so much because the protagonist was such a well-defined and relatable character that we didn’t want to see them die (one of the short-comings of the genre, to be certain), but simply because certain death was overcome by someone as human as us.