Why Horror?

I used to get asked this a lot, especially when I was younger. At the age when a lot of my peers were running after soccer balls, riding bikes and starting to notice boys enough to figure out they weren’t as icky as they thought, I discovered an irrepressible love for horror. I loved Stephen King (natch), but I also loved the slash-n-splash horror novels my mom let me buy in bag fulls from the used bookstore and Goodwill. I devoured them one after another like the mental cotton candy they were. Though I probably couldn’t have articulated it, many of them were poorly written, and I knew it but I didn’t care. Most of them I dropped back in the bag to resell in exchange for more, but I kept the ones I really loved. I almost always had one with me, usually with some embossed weapon/torture device emblazoned on the front, and usually dripping with embossed blood. They had corny names in flashy fonts and laughable catch phrases, but that only enticed me to pick them up and see what was between their worn covers.

I had an English teacher in high school that both terrified me and inspired a healthy dose of hero worship that told me, quite bluntly, that I read crap. I only argued with her about Stephen King, but she did have a point. I read a LOT of bad fiction, especially when I was younger. When people got curious enough to ask, or paid enough attention to notice what I was reading, their questions were usually accompanied by a look of utter confusion or even disgust. “Why are you reading that?” was the most common. My response was usually something like a shrug, a smirk and a glib “why not?” I probably didn’t have the maturity or understanding to answer at the time, but I think I do now.

The answer struck me when I was watching the coverage of the Boston marathon explosions. I watched as much of it as I could stand, which was probably more than I should have. Growing up in New England, I was familiar with WCVB and I streamed their coverage. I perused reddit and, against my better judgment, looked at way too many pictures that were nauseatingly graphic. (Note to self: r/WTF means it when they use the NSFL tags.) When I couldn’t take any more, I turned on the TV, opting for The Chernobyl Diaries. After a minute, I had to chuckle. I’d swapped one horror for another. I’d gone from explosions and maiming to…well, maiming and torture. Yet there was a difference, I realized, and a pretty significant one.

Horror has been a staple for me as long as I can remember. I liked being scared by monsters in movies and books. I remember sneaking in as much of a horror movie as I could stand when I was home alone babysitting my sister or other kids after they’d gone to bed. I rarely made it all the way through, but I loved the rush and running around turning all the lights on afterwards. I imagined noises in the darkness outside caused by the scary guy in the mask looking in on me. (I did eventually stop watching the kind that targeted babysitters when I realized I’d have a hell of a time protecting the kids I was supposed to be keeping alive. Well, at least until I stopped babysitting.) The mind games in horror movies are a big fascination for me, both those played on the actors and those on the viewers. I love scary movies so much, I watch them at times that most people find totally inappropriate, like alone in the dark before bed or when I’m wrapping Christmas presents (movies like Friday the 13th are totally Christmas movies – they have a TON of red and green…). But why? And why after a tragedy like watching innocent people lose limbs for the crime of spectating at an athletic event? And the more I thought, the closer I got to an answer.

When there’s a tragedy, especially one that was intentionally perpetrated on innocent people, we all struggle to wrap our heads around it. The incessant news coverage, the (irresponsibly reported) speculation that becomes (temporary) “fact,” and the way we cling to social media to talk about it and try to make it into something that makes sense are all just symptoms of our NEED to understand. We NEED to put our world in perspective, in terms we can feel comfortable with and in a way that re-empowers us so we don’t feel helpless to protect loved ones or feel safe again. In the beginning, when it’s not clear who orchestrates and carries out events like 9-11, Sandy Hook, and the most recent explosions in Boston, we all feel insecure. We all panic a little inside and wonder “where will they strike next?” or think about how “it could have been here…it could have been me…” We feel guilty for being relieved that it WASN’T us, or our loved ones, because then it feels like we’re saying we’re glad it was someone else. We get angry because our power and security are stripped from us as individuals, as protectors of others, as a sovereign people in a nation relatively untouched by the acts of terrorism others regularly experience. We’re reminded of our vulnerabilities, and we’re reminded that we’re not as untouchable as we think. We get pissed off because we get scared. Not knowing who the bad guy is makes us point fingers and act paranoid senselessly. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, we had concentration camps of our own because of the way Japanese-Americans looked; actual involvement in the event or connections to them meant nothing. After 9-11, there was a LOT of anti-Muslim sentiment and some acts of violence and hate, simply because we connected them to the event. In Boston, a plane was grounded because two people on it spoke Arabic – before anyone had any idea who caused the explosions or why. Granted, I’m taking this one with a grain of salt since it is Fox “News,” but this shows how bad we want a bad guy to blame, to figure out who to pin the responsibility on, and give the monster a face we can recognize when it gets close enough to threaten our own.

In horror, it’s never that difficult. The bad guy is the one with the machete, the chainsaw, or the voice on the other end of the line. It’s the big guy with the knife blades for fingers who torments our dreams, or the creepy ass clown laughing in the storm drain. Even when the evil m-fer is invisible, we know what a ghost is and we figure out ways of fighting it. If the big bad is a mental manipulator who breaks into minds, we kid ourselves and swear we’d be stronger, that we’d show common sense where the character did not. We say we’d know better than to run upstairs when the bastard does get in the house.

In horror, fear is easy, accessible and when it gets too much, we can walk away. It puts our every day fears into perspective. “I may not make it until payday with that much in my checking account, but at least I’m not trapped in a car that won’t start with a rabid dog waiting to eat me outside.” We even think we learn survival skills, but really, we start to learn about people and how our fucked up little brains work. Every horror story is an exercise in abnormal psychology and that can help us understand the crazy bitch who yelled at us at work, or teach us to give the one with the shining eyes a wider berth because who KNOWS what that guy could really be capable of…

Even when the book ends in that unsettling way I have such a love-hate relationship with, the scary stuff is always resolved, usually by the one with the guts to stand up, say “fuck this,” and fight back. It teaches us that life, however twisted, is worth living and worth fighting to preserve. It teaches that no matter how dark, how impossible the struggle, and how slim the odds of surviving, it is possible in the end. The resolution might not one I like, but it lets me put the fear to bed. It may be something I carry with me (like World War Z, or Hell House, or One Second After, or Full Dark, No Stars, or The Stand…), but I understand it. I can dissect why the big bad scared me, and even if I didn’t learn anything, I saw the face of the monster and was able to recognize it for what it was. You can’t always do that with reality. Even when there’s someone to blame, even when there is someone to take ownership of the horrors in the world, we still don’t understand or have the answer to the most important question – “why?”

Fiction is worth more than the words on the page and it’s more than a way to spend a rainy afternoon curled up on the couch or to fill hours basking in the sun on the beach. Horror is more than the low-brow entertainment or cheap thrills some elitists claim it to be. Humans are story telling creatures because it’s the way we make sense of the world around us. As scary as the world’s getting, horror is something that will get some of us through, because it reveals the monsters, teaches us “why,” and reminds us that being brave and fighting back is the only way to survive the night.

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