Monday, December 30, 2019

Horror Fiction Redefines What It Means to "Like" a Story

P.T. Phronk
A post by P.T. Phronk,
of Forest City Pulp fame
In my last post, I sought a scientific explanation for why people like the horror genre, even though it’s repulsive by nature. I don’t believe there’s something wrong with people who like to be scared—they’re still scared, and that’s still not an inherently pleasant thing. But that just brings us back to the core question: if people are repulsed by horror, why do they like it?

Let’s go back to what it even means to “like” something. Feeling joy is certainly one route to liking. When you eat a piece of cheesecake and your tongue tells your brain to leak happy chemicals into its mushy folds, sure, you like cheesecake. However, we humans are complicated, and the range of human experience is much broader than a neural thumbs-up or thumbs-down in response to a given thing.

When it comes to horror, here are a few reasons to “like” a scary story despite your brain often giving it a vigorous thumbs-down:

  • Relief. It feels good to be done with a bad experience. It may even feel better than how you felt before the bad experience. So part of enjoying horror may be chasing a high—not during the scary bits, but during the comic relief, or when there’s actually nothing behind the door, or when the big bad monster is finally defeated.

  • Expression. People like to express themselves, and a person who likes horror may want to express that they are the type of person who likes horror. In my research on the topic, I’ve found certain personality traits that predict self-reported enjoyment of the genre—for example, people who describes themselves as agreeable are less likely to say they like horror, and people who describe themselves as thrill seekers are more likely to say they like horror. However, crucially, they had the same emotional reactions to horrific imagery. It’s more of a self-expression thing—we all construct an image of how we see ourselves, and how we hope others see us. Saying we like horror is one small part of that. And I don’t think expressing ourselves through our preferences is “fake” in any way; it’s core to how we operate as social beings, and as genuine as loving cheesecake.*

  • Connection. Serious academics have named this the “snuggle theory” of enjoying frightening media. It mostly applies to film—two people watch a scary movie together and one acts scared while the other acts brave, which brings them closer together, which leads to babies and the continuation of the human species. I think it applies platonically too, though. The horror community is one of the most interesting and generous I’ve seen, so our shared love of getting freaked out can lead to connecting with awesome like-minded people.

For me personally, it’s all of the above, and one more thing that I haven’t come across in the academic literature. I’m a scientist myself, so I have a weird need to understand the unknown, but also an attraction to the unknown itself. After all, science shines a light in the pit of the unknown, but there are always more shadows, and we have to be curious enough to jump in the pit in the first place.

For me, the most sublime horror is this poster for It Comes At Night:

Or this video of unidentified howling in the woods:

Or this pie chart:

Or the best cosmic horror novels. Just pure unknown, or unknowable.

I love that feeling of the unknown; the bittersweet unease from realizing there could be anything out there—or nothing. This feeling may overlap with fear, and it may be ambivalent rather than pure joy, but I think it’s worth seeking out. Maybe my attraction to the unknown is why I’m sometimes accused of writing novels without endings.

Human minds are some of the most unknowable objects in the known universe, especially as we're all trying to understand them from the inside, but hopefully this series of posts helped in understanding, just a little bit more, why the human mind would be attracted to darkness.

*Another point under the “expression” theme: when I wrote about horror on Medium, a reader named Caryn wrote this comment about how expressing fear may be taboo in certain cultures, except during a horror movie. Horror can allow people to express themselves in a society where they otherwise can’t.

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