Monday, December 2, 2019

The Paradoxical Appeal of Horror Fiction

Art by Prettysleepy2.

Hey. I’m P.T. Phronk, the new guy around here. I write genre fiction—mostly horror. I’m also a brain scientist. For my first post here, I thought I’d combine those things and explore the irrationality of the horror genre with an attempt at rational thought.

Have you ever thought about how damn strange horror really is? Yeah yeah, obviously spooky stuff is strange, and it’s always been an outcast of a genre due to the icky subject matter, but I propose that its strangeness goes deeper than the obvious, because horror is inherently paradoxical. In horror, what’s bad is good. The worse it is, the better it is. How does that even make sense?

Horror fiction goes through periods when it’s embraced by the mainstream, like the “post-horror” label a few years ago, when horrific media stumbled into the territory of Very Serious Critics™ and was judged to occasionally have redeeming qualities beyond the ghosts, goblins, and guts. That doesn't change the fact that the core of horror—the defining quality—is repulsion. If it doesn’t contain something you want to turn away from, then it’s not horror.* Why would anyone be attracted to repulsion?

It’s tempting to think there’s something wrong with people who are really into horror. Maybe some neurons got wired into the wrong places in their brains, and they actually experience bad things as good. They are the defective humans who, outside the comfy modern world, would have been compelled to enter Earth’s darkest corners, only to add to the piles of skull fragments and femurs lying there.

But I don’t buy that anyone who likes a good scare is defective.

In my PhD thesis on horror (read it here if you have a few hours to spare), I used a special technique to get at people’s gut reactions to frightening media, free from cultural baggage and other explicit thoughts that come into play if you simply ask someone “do you like this gushing neck stump? I know you're not supposed to, but do you???” That's one of the reasons it's so hard to understand why people like horror. You can't just ask them.

Anyway, coming at it more indirectly, I found that when you pull out the repulsive elements of horror movies and show them to people, everyone has a negative gut reaction. There are no—or at least very few—people who see something scary or gross and feel pleasure instead of repulsion.

I think this applies even more strongly to written horror. There are no noisy jump scares or visual gross-outs in a novel, so there’s even less room for the theory that people consume horror because they’re getting some cheap thrill out of it (not that there's anything wrong with a good cheap thrill—we're on the verge of a recession, after all). Those defining repulsive elements are necessary for horror, but not sufficient for enjoying it. There must be something deeper. Something that I believe gets at the core of what it means to “like” something, and ultimately, what it means to be happy.

What explains the paradoxical appeal of horror?

That’ll have to wait, because this post is already getting long. Sorry to leave you hanging, but I’ll return at the end of the month with more thoughts on horror and happiness. In the meantime, let me know: are you one of those baffling people who likes to be scared? If so, why do you think that is? I know a few paragraphs ago I said you can't just ask people about this stuff, but we horror fans have to be comfortable with paradoxes. Comment right here, or find me on Twitter @Phronk.


Kimberly G. Giarratano said...

I like to be haunted, but not scared--if that makes sense. There is something about past trauma and loss I'm drawn to whether it is in the form of ghosts or memories. What does that say about me?

Welcome to ATB!! It's great to have you aboard.

Phronk said...

Thanks for the warm welcome, Kimberly! That makes total sense to me. That more subtle haunting feeling can be as effective as any outright fear, and I think the horror genre really shows the vast range of human emotions that are under the surface when you unpack all that scary stuff.

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