I was thrilled to find out my blog post was going up on Halloween. I’ve talked about my interest in the genre before, but I wanted to wrap up the spooky season by widening the net and discussing some of the “why?” when it comes to people enjoying it.
For those of you who love spooky season – this will all be familiar territory for you. But for those of you who answer the question “what do you like to read?” with “everything except horror” – then this is for you.
Before I can talk about “why,” I have to go into a bit of the “how.”
Physical thrill experiences such as roller coasters, sky diving, or bungee jumping use acceleration, g-forces, loops, etc., to manipulate your inner ear, internal organs, and other senses to mess with your brain chemistry and to give you a taste of fear without putting you in any real danger (so long as the coaster, parachute, or bungee cord function correctly).
Enjoying horror media provides that sense of thrill or fear differently. Often, horror media taps into primal human fears and feelings. There are many of them, but they all fall under the fear spectrum of dread, anxiety, and panic.
- Dread is a low-level feeling of general uncertainty, of bad things to come, or the troubling sense that something is wrong or out of place. You were sure all the knives were in the knife block a second ago — but now it’s missing.
- Anxiety is an emotional response to something rustling in the bushes or footsteps down the hall. You know something is there but don’t know if it is a threat yet. You ask, “Is someone there?”
- Panic is when that general anxiety becomes immediate, adrenaline-pumping terror. There is a person — a stranger, no less — in your home. They are holding the once-missing knife. You should run now.
There are many ways that horror media does all of those things, and I don’t have time to go into all of that now, as the purpose of this post is to discuss what happens after someone gets off the roller coaster, closes the book, or reaches the credits.
From several studies, Glenn Sparks, a professor at Purdue, found that people like scary stuff because they get great satisfaction from saying that they conquered and mastered something threatening – they enjoy the feeling that they “made it through.” This can be done through other characters, too. When the heroine finally plunges a stake through the heart of the last vampire, your muscles relax, and you let a breath (because you’ve been holding it for a long time).
Similarly, to this point, there’s the psychological benefit. I’ve touched on this specifically as it pertains to children and why spooky stories are good for them, but what I want to reiterate here is that horror provides an enjoyable and safe way to explore and experience fear, allowing people to work through and release pent-up emotions and anxieties. It’s easier to “try on” conquering fear through media than jumping right into the real thing. For example, as someone with fairly extreme arachnophobia, it was easier for me to watch spider-focused nature documentaries before I was able to hold a book that had a picture of a spider on it — which I could do well before I could be in a room with a (contained) tarantula.
While enjoying horror media is a relatively passive experience (not digging into haunted houses or fear experiences here, even though I know they exist), it still can elicit physical reactions, and sensations that people find enjoyable. There is something fun about experiencing that “fight or flight” reaction and all the things that come with it (racing heart, sweaty palms, adrenaline, and endorphins). It’s like an instant dose of caffeine, or that rush you get after heavy exercise. Similarly, horror allows us to feel strong emotions and have visceral reactions. Anger, hatred, fear, love, repulsion, empathy — horror has these and more.
And finally, at least for the sake of this post — horror gives people hope. While it may remind us that monsters are real, it also shows they can be conquered. That humans are strong and capable of overcoming scary things. On the flip side, sometimes we crave an honest depiction of sadness, disappointment, or turmoil. Happy endings can feel disingenuous. Seeing relatable characters try their best and still end up failing can be a healing balm in and of itself.
No matter the ending, horror makes us think, “If they can try to survive, so can I.”
If you would like to continue the spooky season – and maybe get your heart racing a little bit – check out some of these books!