A couple of weeks ago, I looked at some of the things that makes a scary story work (you can read that post here). Today, I want to explore the appeal of horror and dark fiction.
Horror is a strange genre. It used to be a sub-genre of ‘speculative fiction’, along with fantasy and science-fiction, and writers like Lovecraft blended all three. But now, it doesn’t quite fit. Where some science fiction is considered serious and literary, horror is more likely to be thought of as ‘nasty stories’. Where fantasy creates whole new worlds, horror is (generally) stuck in the real world, with a few supernatural elements thrown in—and ghosts aren’t in the same league as dragons and elves.
Science fiction and fantasy sell far more, and have a larger fan-base. Horror has been left behind.
Yet there are many important horror works, like Frankenstein and Dracula. Stephen King is considered a horror author, and he is one of the most popular writers around. The genre has in part been responsible for influential TV shows, like X-Files, Buffy and The Twilight Zone (and even Doctor Who uses monsters and other horror tropes). There are shades of horror in literary books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Some of the best-known sci-fi franchises have their roots in horror, like Alien. Without horror, the whole urban fantasy and paranormal romance genres (think Twilight) would not exist, and those stories continue to draw in many readers.
Then there are the ghost stories, and the monsters that everyone knows about—vampires, zombies, werewolves. There are ghost trains at the funfair. There are the costumes at Halloween.
For a derided genre, horror is incredibly influential.
So what is the appeal? Why do we enjoy stories that terrify us?
I used to work at outdoor activity centres, and as part of this I would take people abseiling. Grabbing hold of a rope and leaning over a drop isn’t a natural thing to do, and many people would (quite sensibly) be scared. They’d be shaking. They’d need coaxing over the edge. Despite all the assurances that it was perfectly safe, they’d imagine the worst.
But they’d do it anyway. They might be swearing under their breath the whole way down, and they might need another instructor by their sides, encouraging them for each tiny step, but they’d reach the bottom. And then, legs shaking and heart hammering, they’d smile.
They’d done it. They’d conquered their fears and survived. They’d pushed themselves through their terror, and they’d overcome. Even if they never abseiled again, they could be proud of what they had achieved. Often, they would give it another go. Or they’d remember how they overcame their nerves, and push themselves a little further on the next activity.
Maybe you’re starting to see where I’m going with this.
For most of us, our lives are comfortable. We wake up, we go to work or do whatever else fills our day, we move around freely, we relax in safety at home, and then we go to sleep.
The news warns us of the dangers out there—the murderers, the rapists, the paedophiles. It brings us images of natural disasters, and of atrocities brought about by others. Yet most of us will not encounter any of this in reality. It is news because it is rare. If it were commonplace, it would not be reported with anything like the same intensity.
So we are safe.
Yet there is a part of us that thrives on adrenaline. Sometimes, conflict is good. We need that risk, and we need to push ourselves. Sometimes, we need to grab that rope and dangle a hundred feet from the ground.
It is often said that, when times are bad, people look to feel-good escapism in their entertainment, and when times are good darker fiction grows in popularity. And this makes sense—we need both security and tension. Inactivity, physically and mentally (spiritually and emotionally?), is bad for us.
It explains why roller-coasters are popular. We know they are safe (again, the accidents are reported because they are anomalies), but they give the illusion of danger. Hurtling around a twisting track, being thrown upside-down, with the screams of others in our ears, gives us an adrenaline rush. And afterwards, we can smile and laugh about it, because we’ve survived.
Thrillers are often described as ‘roller-coaster reads’, because they take us on a thrilling journey, with twists and turns that toss us about unexpectedly. And horror does something similar.
In any fiction, there has to be tension. The higher the stakes, the greater this tension, and the more we are drawn into the story. We fear for the hero, knowing that they face something terrifying. In thrillers, this is death—from the villain’s gun, or the bomb the hero is racing to diffuse, or from the trap they have found themselves in. But in horror, it is damnation. In horror, death is not the worst that can happen.
In vampire legends a bite can turn the victim into one of the undead, cursed for all eternity. Ghosts come back from beyond the grave, and threaten to take us to places we can hardly imagine. In apocalyptic horror, like McCarthy’s The Road, those who have died are the lucky ones, escaping the hell that the survivors must endure. In Thomas Harris’ Silence Of The Lambs, Hannibal is not scary because he kills, but because of how he desecrates his victims bodies. In King’s The Shining, Jack Torrence becomes a monster, no longer himself, and turns on his own family.
This is the stuff of nightmares. Life and death are constants, but damnation, and the torture of the soul—that is terrifying.
Like the person queueing for the roller-coaster ride, or the person putting on their harness at the top of the cliff, a part of us is drawn to the terror. As much as it disturbs us, we want to know what is out there. It’s like an itch that won’t go away.
Horror stories allow us to scratch that itch. They allows us to confront dark forces. As much as logic might tell us that monsters and supernatural forces don’t exist, there’s always that ‘but what if…’, and dark fiction gives us possible answers to that. It lets us in on a world that makes the unreal real, and unleashes our nightmares.
But in a controlled manner. Just as we trust the designers and operators of the roller-coaster, or the person belaying the rope at the top of the cliff, so we trust the storyteller to bring us through to the end. Whatever happens along the way, we will survive. And then we can walk away, our need for adrenaline satisfied, and our fears conquered. We can emerge from the darkness to look around and appreciate all the good things we have in our lives.
This is another huge appeal of horror, even if it is subconscious—there is an end. No matter how bad things get, there is always a way through. Even though there may be (are?) things out there we cannot understand or even comprehend, we are survivors. Despite (or because of) the darkness, there is always hope. Good will triumph over evil. The vampire will be slain. The monster will be defeated. The night will end. There is always a new dawn.
And, when there is so much going on in the world over which we have no control, that has to be a comfort.