I love horror. I love scary movies, scary video games, and haunted houses. Completely by accident, my TikTok feed has ended up being videos of people recording ghosts in their houses, because the almighty algorithm had me pegged as a fan of the spooky in less than 24 hours. I have spent a lot of time thinking about horror, what it means, and why we engage with it. My wife, for example, hates anything scary. She has no interest in scary movies and went with me once to a “Haunted Trail” in the Minneapolis exurbs in our first year together. I think my wife’s reaction to horror is probably the more sensible one, and the more I’ve encountered people who want absolutely nothing to do with anything scary, the more I’ve been inclined to reflect on what makes horror work for me, and for others like me. But in doing so, I’ve also learned that maybe we horror fans aren’t on fully the same page.
Before we go much further, it would be helpful to define what we mean when we say “horror,” and here is where we see the first cracks. I tend to be an inclusionist in most definitions, so I apply that to horror as well. The most succinct definition I could agree with was from literaryterms.net (forgive me if this seems a little English 101, but if getting a Bachelors in English taught me anything, it’s that asking the internet how to define a genre is just asking to read about ten different contradictory papers, so let’s keep it simple). Literaryterms.net claims that horror “is a genre of fiction whose purpose is to create feelings of fear, dread, repulsion, and terror in the audience — in other words, it develops an atmosphere of horror.” They go on to say that it comes from the Old French orror, which means “to shudder or to bristle.”
Now this is important: horror is defined by it’s intended effect, much as comedy is, not by it’s success on an individual. Additionally, that intended effect encompasses far more than simple fear. This is a point of contention for those who treat horror the same way they treat hot peppers: the more horror you consume, the less frightening it will be, but that doesn’t make it not horror. Horror is not about what scares you personally.This was an argument I had with folks around the time Get Out was released. Many people didn’t find it especially scary, and so wanted to describe Get Out as a thriller, rather than as horror. But Get Out was clearly trying to create a sense of dread and repulsion in the audience, so it makes sense to call it horror. I would add one more thing to this definition: horror is also driven by a sense of the taboo, that what we are looking at on screen is not something we are supposed to be looking at. Let’s explore the difference in these attitudes a bit more.
Three Attitudes Toward Horror
In my time thinking about these things and in engaging with other Horror Fans on the internet, I feel like I’ve been able to broadly separate people into three basic attitudes toward horror: Aversion, Reflection, and Indulgence.
Aversion refers to people who usually or always avoid horror. Averse people may make an exception for a horror movie that looms large in the culture, like Get Out, especially if they are encouraged that it’s not too scary, but they don’t seek horror out. Their actual feelings about people who do like horror range from a live-and-let-live approach to thinking that engaging in horror is itself unhealthy.
Reflection refers to people who enjoy horror, but may enjoy (or purport to enjoy) the genre for reasons other than simply looking for a thrill. They may be more picky about what horror they watch for content reasons. I would put myself in this category. While I like a good jumpscare, I’m most interested in what a particular monster, killer, or threat represents. The basic element of horror, that it’s scary or taboo, is still a strong motivator, but there’s a reason I am more interested in the original Dawn of the Dead than the remake. I think that the original states its themes and follows through on them in a more interesting way. In addition to being scary, it has more to say. It’s the combination of titillation and meaning that attracts reflective people to horror.
Indulgence refers to those who are all-in for the thrill of the scare. What a particular movie might be trying to say or whatever commentary it holds may still be of interest to them, but they’re really here to be scared. They want a show. They use horror as a safe place to explore the taboo, as a space where one can see killers, monsters, blood, and guts and the worst thing that will happen to them is that they may get some popcorn stuck in their teeth. People who primarily engage horror to be frightened or to indulge themselves with blood and gore do run the risk of desensitizing themselves, leading to a cycle where they seek out more and more extreme horror. This has spawned entire genres that seek to shock and often do little else. Which is fine, if that’s what you need in your life!
What Does Horror Do?
Horror can be much more than a series of shocking displays, however. It can be a vital means of exploring the unexplorable. H. Scott Poole’s book The Wasteland explores the connection between the rise of horror in the 20th century and the First World War. His argument, broadly, is that horror, even that concerning vampires, ghosts, and other supernatural monsters, provided a means for those who lived through the war to talk about and depict the things they saw. People flocked to the movie theaters to see these images: people were working out something dark and traumatic through horror. Horror can deal with the deaths of friends, loved ones, one night stands, and children. It can depict horrible torture and sexual assault. It can examine themes of revenge, sadism, and the will to survive.
When you go to a horror movie, you expect that you might be confronted with images that repulse you, or themes that you find uncomfortable, but these are themes which are nevertheless worth exploring. Something like Candyman was never going to win an award, but it uses its supernatural killer to explore lynchings, their continued impact on Black people, and the distance that white society has created between its violence and the victims of that violence. Because it’s a horror movie, the audience is prepared when people are stabbed or when the main character wakes up in a blood-soaked room.
Horror also provides catharsis. A few years ago I went to Eastern State Penitentiary, and there I picked up Majorie Kerr’s Scream. It’s an astounding book approaching horror from a sociological point of view. Kerr is a sociologist who works for a major “haunt” in Pittsburgh, so her job is literally to understand horror. Though she would undoubtedly agree with Poole’s thesis above on horror as a means to explore difficult topics, she also discusses the physiological nature of horror. Namely, when we are afraid, when we are startled, we get a little jolt of adrenaline. Once the danger passes, we feel good! People watching horror movies scream, squirm, cover their eyes, and often laugh. Kerr observed that the brain has difficulty immediately judging the difference between real and fake danger, meaning that as things happen on screen, your brain tends to perceive them as being real. However, once it registers that there is no actual danger, your brain tries to get the whole body to relax again, which creates a pleasurable sensation.
In this way, we can see how horror combines this exploration of the unexplorable with feelings of pleasure. It makes us feel strong, because we are able to look death in the face and then, realizing that it isn’t real, have a little laugh. While there are many people who avoid certain genres of horror or certain themes to avoid triggers they may have, there are also a lot of people who seek out horror specifically to engage their trauma. You could argue in fact all of Europe was doing this after the First World War. While horror is not a replacement for introspection or other therapies, it can provide a safe place to deal with unsafe things that one is afraid of or that one has experienced.
Boundaries and Consent
Because horror deals with taboo topics, it can lead into uncomfortable territory. Horror is pleasurable because it pushes boundaries, including boundaries of taste. However, these boundaries are only pleasurable to push when we have agreed to what boundaries are being pushed and how. I know this may upset some Indulgers, but I’m talking about Content Warnings and Trigger Warnings.
A non-horror example: When I was a sophomore in college, I took a course on African fiction. We read Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s a great book, worth your time, but I will warn you, as my professor did not, that there is a graphic depiction of sexual assault about halfway through. When I lent the book to a friend I mentioned this off-handedly, and she declined to read it because she didn’t feel like she was in a place for that. On the other hand, two years later I was in a theater class, and we were assigned to see Ruined, a play about a bar in the midst of unrest in the Congo. Our professor warned us that this play, famously, has a scene depicting sexual assault on stage, and offered an alternative assignment for anyone who requested it, no questions asked. I was shocked by the book in the first class, but in the second instance, I felt okay, knowing what I was getting into. I felt like I had agreed to see what was going to be shown to me, and while it was still shocking, I didn’t feel taken out of the experience.
I am generally a proponent of spoiling the surprise if the surprise is something that may diminish someone’s ability to enjoy a work of art. I know what my wife is uncomfortable or uncomfortable with seeing on a screen and when I do suggest a horror movie (especially during October, when I am alotted three to watch as a couple), I always look it up on doesthedogdie.com. This site catalogs about 30 triggers such as: Does the dog die? Does a child die? Does anything happen involving teeth? and on and on. I have heard some people complain that the shock and surprise is part of the experience, but I doubt those people have ever seen someone leave a movie theater because they had a panic attack. It took me right out to watch a person walk, zombie-like, out of the theater, shaking, with their boyfriend right behind asking what was wrong, as a torture scene played behind them. People go to horror movies to have boundaries pushed, but consent is essential to ensuring a good time.
Horror is Healthy
When consent is properly observed, when people are aware of what they are about to experience, and when everyone is clear-headed about what the next bit of time will bring, horror can be a very healthy outlet. This is because horror can help us deal with difficult themes through allegorical means, but allow us to have fun while we do it. Sure, the zombies in Dawn of the Dead are a metaphor for mindless consumerism, but it’s also exciting to watch them tear apart the bikers who invade the mall. Nosferatu may represent the spectre of death hanging over a war-ravaged Europe, but he’s also a spooky vampire.
Most horror tropes speak to some kind of societal fear, whether they are the slashers of the 70’s and 80’s standing in for rising fear of violent crime, or Godzilla representing a growing fear of nuclear war. These are issues that deserve to be examined: we should talk about what scares us. While there is a time and place to do so very seriously, there is also value in doing so by exploring macabre and dark images, but allowing ourselves to feel fear for someone being stalked by a killer, or by letting ourselves feel relieved when a jump scare turns out to be a cat. So think about what you want to see, what ideas you want to explore. Choose carefully, but consider choosing horror.