How Horror Works
The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…
– ‘Knock’, Frederick Brown
It’s fun to be scared. Haunted Houses, Halloween, scary movies and Stephen King: all terrifying (Ok, perhaps not Stephen King himself, I’m talking about his books.) and all gloriously entertaining.
Horror novels aren’t considered ‘high art’ by literary critics, more of a cheap thrill. And what’s wrong with that? But I think there’s more to the horror novel than cheap thrills. Something is going on that accounts for its enduring popularity. (Something sinister? Dun dun dunnn!!)
They evoke this very powerful, very visceral and primal emotion of fear. Fear is universal: everyone experiences it. What is so terrifying about a set of pointed fangs, glowing red eyes and sunken pale skin that they are able to evoke such a fear in people regardless of age or ethnicity?
There is a certain exhilaration that fear brings. It’s like adrenalin. When you feel fear your instinct kicks in. Fear raises your senses: you’re suddenly attuned to every infinitesimal detail of your surroundings. A sudden movement or noise captures your undivided attention.
Compare it to why people enjoy rollercoasters so much, and why they love to scream the whole way through it. Like a rollercoaster, the horror novel provides a safe fear: one we’re in control of. We choose to take it on and we feel that rush throughout and then come out the other end exhilarated that we’ve conquered the fear.
I think that’s why we love horror novels so much. They test us. Test our limits. Just when we think we can’t handle anymore, there comes a far more terrifying scene. We’re terrified, and yet we get through it. We haven’t let the fear overwhelm us. We’ve experienced it and overcome it.
Not so scary after all, is it?