By Rebecca Martin (they/them)
With the roots of our scary stories stretching back to ancient mythology and folklore, it seems the macabre and horrifying has always found a way to fascinate and entice people. Horror has an uncanny ability to reflect our fears back through books, films and video games: real-life fears recontextualised into narratives filled with axe murderers, monsters and haunted houses. Fear becomes attractive when we hold the reins; safe in the knowledge that at any moment we may close the book or turn off the screen. But what makes us seek out horror and fear to begin with?
Horace Walpole’s 1764 ‘Castle of Otranto’ is considered the first book to formally establish the horror genre, with the Gothic horror novel developing alongside Romanticism over the course of the 18th century. Filled with crumbling castles, dark doubles, eerie landscapes and haunting psychological plots, the genre quickly developed a formulaic structure that simultaneously gained popularity and pulp status. Like much of the media frequently created and enjoyed by women, Gothic novels in the 18th century were considered sensational and lowbrow literature. From the madwoman in the attic to the final girl, misogyny surrounding horror has been sustained to this day, with women reduced almost exclusively to victim or monster. Such pervasive tropes and issues, however, are part of what make horror so fascinating.
As a genre which forces audiences to come face to face with anxieties and realities often suppressed and ignored, horror holds immensely subversive potential. Historically, horror has seen the queer-coded, racialised or otherwise ‘othered’ figure as the source of fear which threatens to destabilise the status quo in our lives and stories. Now, however, we are seeing a wealth of horror fiction and film made by queer people and people of colour. Writers such as Carmen Maria Machado and Kirsty Logan are exploring queer experiences and identity, questioning the safety of the private sphere with haunted houses and body horror. Filmmakers and writers like Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Jordan Peele have depicted the pervasive horror of racism through psychological terror and supernatural forces. The significance of culture in what we find frightening cannot be overlooked; for marginalised people, the systems of white supremacy and cisheteropatriarchy present the greatest horrors of our world.
In 1996 Jeffrey J. Cohen published ‘Monster Theory: Reading Culture’, which proposed a method of analysing cultural fears via the monsters and horror narratives that emerge from the time. The chapters include essays ranging from the supernatural uncertainty of Early Icelandic sagas to the figure of Bram Stoker’s Dracula as an analogy for capitalism. In this way, we can read the misogynistic tropes of horror as a wider cultural issue; the preoccupation with women’s bodies and sexualities demonstrative of the horror that takes place within patriarchal society. Similarly, the recent resurgence of zombie horror, such as Train to Busan (2016) and All of Us Are Dead (2022), is telling in an era when late-stage capitalism threatens most of the world with a zombie-like state of existence just to survive.
A 2020 survey from the American Psychology Association set out to analyse the paradoxical popularity of the horror genre and the negative emotions it invokes by finding out who consumes and enjoys this media. Over a thousand participants were questioned about their personality, horror genre preferences, media consumption habits and the extent of their paranormal beliefs. Factors such as age, gender and educational level were also included. Ultimately, the survey found that, “while frightening media may be initially aversive, people high in sensation seeking and intellect/imagination, in particular, like intellectual stimulation and challenge and expect not just negative but also positive emotions from horror consumption.” These results demonstrated that after pushing through initial aversion people primarily experience anticipation, fear and surprise and gain a sense of achievement after facing the simulated danger. For those who enjoy horror the most, feelings of joy were seen to increase, with lower instances of negative emotions and higher instances of positive emotion even when increased levels of fear were experienced. And by examining participants’ paranormal beliefs, the study found that people are most likely to consume horror they find plausible. Stronger belief in the supernatural correlated to consuming supernatural themed horror and vice versa.
For some then, there is genuine fun in the fear we expect to feel from horror; derived both from overcoming simulated threat and a gripping sensory and intellectual experience. At other times, horror allows us to reflect on the outside world in a new context: one in which trauma manifests as ghosts, violence is inflicted by masked killers and nature takes revenge on humanities destruction via animate plant monsters. Horror helps us understand our own fears, giving them shape and substance. This allows us to find entertainment and clarity, the chance to be scared of something we can close the pages of at the end of the day. And in a time when our real-world fears seem so inescapable, it makes a strange amount of sense that the scary content wewe can choose has become such a great escape.
Clasen, M., Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, J., & Johnson, J. A. 2020. ‘Horror, personality, and threat simulation: A survey on the psychology of scary media,’ in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 14 (3), 213–230
Frayling, Christopher. 1996. Nightmare: The Birth of Horror. (London: BBC Books)
Jerome Cohen, Jeffrey. 1996. Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press)