What is the genre of horror and what is the appeal?

I have been trying to answer this question for months.

It seems the harder I dig the more I realize how complex the answer is. I have been looking especially for inspiration from horror. Turns out there are real doctors and psychologists who have done studies, and written giant papers. No kidding.

I am digging through none other than a Journal of Psychology article among others looking for more answers.

Psychological definitions of horror commonly include “fear of some uncertain threat to existential nature and . . . disgust over its potential aftermath” and commonly assert that “the source of threat is [often] supernatural in its composition” (Tamborini & Weaver, 1996, p. 2).

Sorry about getting all book report-ish here, but I really wanted to include a quote from the paper to set up what is about to come.

According to this paper there are three base assumptions for horror.
  1. It must be fiction.
  2. The intent is to invoke terror. 
  3. The laws of nature must be somehow circumvented. 

Sounds easy enough. So giant people-eating rats, or giant people eating rats, or a killer who keeps coming back fit snugly here. I would always get so frustrated with those kids inability to kill Jason. I never looked at is as his inability to be killed. Speaking of Jason though, what did he do the rest of the year when there were no kids at the camp. Just something to ponder. I don't imagine he had a very large social network. But who knows.

So here is something I never considered. Jaws, the giant rubber shark which terrified me and all my friends as a kid. Horror. No kidding? I never would have made that connection. It was intended to evoke fear through a very abnormal or supernatural force. I remember it was very scary. Let me push it a little further. The film where the couple is on a diving charter and get left behind out in the ocean. For me a terrifying concept. The couple eventually drowned. There was no happy ending here. This touches on more than one of my fears. Let me guess... horror? Probably so. For me, absolutely. Not sure if we get the laws of nature circumvented on this one but I am terrified enough to make up for it.

As part of a recent conversation with a fellow author, she described a cultural numbness to the real horrors of life. She had a list like rape, murder, dysfunction, terrorism somehow being so part of the norm that people are no longer recognizing it as horror. I agree with her. It doesn't mean it is less horrific but with the massive over saturation of "news" and media, real horror has become commonplace and I say as a whole, less shocking.

What is the tie in here? What is the appeal?  I am sure I cannot answer this definitively but I have found some potential answers. Maybe it is more obvious to someone else. I do not want to meet a person who enjoys real life horror. Not the thrill of a roller coaster, I mean real horror. This woman about an hour from here killed two of her kids and kept them in her freezer. Not cringing at that news story, that to me defies the laws of nature. The events in horror cannot be real. Real horror is not enjoyable. At least that is how I see it.

Enjoying fictional horror however is pretty acceptable, its actually quite popular. Why? What is the difference? What I see, the fictional aspect. I realize this is implied in the fact we are talking about fiction to start with, but that is not what I am getting at. Catharsis is a possibility. It is entirely possible people who have outgrown the desire to be terrified for its own sake, may actually be using horror for other reasons. I may be one of them. House payments, property taxes and government officials are plenty horrific for me, and I haven't even mentioned the idiots who drive on I-94. I definitely do not need to be scared for the sake of getting scared. Getting forced off the highway by a stupid mother fucker texting while driving at 80 mph is enough real horror for me. When I was a kid it was considerably different but then I likely would have had a different reaction to the texting situation as well. Things change with age. I get plenty of horror in a typical day.

Fiction Horror tends to have a positive outcome, I am talking generality here. In previous articles I have discussed the necessity of coming out on the other side of the horror. So if I can deal with some of the horror in my life by using words to kill a monster I cannot even confront in real life, there is a potential cathartic release. I guess I am approaching this a writer but if a fictional character can go out and right some wrongs or face down evil in a way I can only dream of... I applaud that. That would be inspirational, right?

There is a possibility that we can use fictional horror to deal with real life horror. It would definitely help explain the necessity of a supernatural or abnormal element. This gives us an excuse to enjoy the horrific. Not because I am a deranged person but it is fantasy, it is impossible. The supernatural un-explainable element makes it for lack of a better word...acceptable? Not just acceptable, highly sought after. But the nonfictional aspect is part of our daily life which would be hard to avoid.

So here I have laid out some of the seemingly essential components of the horror genre. I begin to see more and more a spot for a niche of inspirational horror as well. It may be that it is currently implied or it may be that I am not the only one who has a big misconception of the genre from the start. Each of these ideas could be expounded on considerably but I will leave the dissertations to the doctors or at least another post. What I have been surprised by is finding other people out there who at first did not consider their writing as horror. If you have read any other of the articles in this series, you know the impetus for my quest was the realization my writing was considered by others as horror. A surprise or an awakening of sorts but I have find a lot more than I ever expected in what I will call a very misunderstood genre.

Bottom note-
Join me in the discussion. If you are interested in this subject, please let me know. It turns out we are not alone.


Zed Amadeo said...

As a horror writer and consumer, I've struggled to answer this question about the appeal of horror. I studied Psychology as an undergrad. In one of my classes we had a brief discussion along the lines of this question and didn't really come up with a satisfactory answer. It is kind of a strange concept when I step back from it - why do I enjoy things which are meant to scare me? I suppose the same could be asked about any form of media that isn't 100% happy. As you mentioned, this can be a way of using fiction to handle real life. I'm sure that lots of stories that I enjoy the most probably touch upon deeper themes I've encountered in real life without my even realizing it.

Gordon A. Wilson said...

I have studied and studied myself. You have come across some of my "research". I definitely dont have answers, only suggestions and possibilities. Of course it is all subjective, but I want to advance the discussion. Please get a hold of me if you would too. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. Gordon

Sean Eaton said...

In my view, horror and religion are two halves of the same coin, both dealing with the same big questions about the nature of reality and the ultimate purpose of human life. They share the same appeal: finding a way to make sense of the fragility and finiteness of human life. I also suspect that horror and religion draw on the same source material, which is dream and nightmare.

The Plan said...

This isn't too hard a question to answer. It's not a big deal at all. There isn't really anything to study. People like horror because it's fun. It's like the anticipation of the first drop of a roller coaster. You want to keep being scared that way. You ask why? Well, because it's not an emotion that is felt daily. You can feel happy, sad, depressed, confused, angry, or disgusted every day. But not horrified. That is rare, and you remember that experience. And don't fall for the myth that people see so much violence and terror that they're desensitized. That's a load of crap. The reason it seems like people don't care for such things is because a person can't roll around panicking all day at every damned thing they hear or see. It would make life useless. It's like saying people who don't laugh at jokes are desensitized to funny things. It makes no sense, right? Horror is fun.

One last thing. Real life is NOT horror. You even said in your definition that horror must be fiction. Being scared of real life is nothing like being scared in fiction. Some people are horrified by just going outside. But horror brings a mood to the moment, brings a purpose to the moment that is insidious, the pulls on you like real life won't. Simply two different things.

Oh, and horror doesn't need to be scary. Bet you didn't know that did you.

Gordon A. Wilson said...

I am glad this post is still alive. I am but a student trying to figure it all out. I appreciate you breathing some life back into this subject and appreciate your comments. Thank you.