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Why Do We Read Horror?


Gordon Rowlinson

It is a strange and counter-intuitive thing to enjoy reading and writing horror stories. Novels and short stories of the horror genre are, by their nature, about negative subjects. Instead of appealing to our positive emotions, horror appeals to our darker emotion of fear. Famed horror writer Edgar Allen Poe had several reoccurring themes in his stories: questions of death; mourning death; the effects of decomposition, being buried alive; and supernatural reanimation of the dead. These are all very negative subjects. It should be noted that Poe was the first horror author that was able to make a living by writing horror. How did he achieve his popularity when his stories contained such negative and disgusting themes?

Modern horror writer Stephen King described horror as: “Horror is when you know and love characters but you also know something very bad is going to happen to them.” Why do we desire to read about bad things happening to characters we love? King is one of the most popular writers of our times. How did Stephen King sell so many novels when so many bad things happened to his characters? Why do we love horror? Shouldn't we enjoy and be more drawn to escapism and feel-good stories?

I suspect that our love of horror is similar to how people enjoy the thrill of going to the fun house at a carnival or the thrill of riding a roller coaster. You desire a thrill of danger yet deep down inside you know you are safe. You know you won't get hurt in the fun house and you know that the roller coaster won't go off the rails. In a similar vein, when we read a horror story, we desire the visceral thrill of reading something strange and dangerous and entering the realm of the supernatural yet deep down inside we know we are safe in our living rooms.

Another explanation is that reading and writing horror creates a sort of catharsis and helps us cope with our real fears. Stephen King believes this is part of the popularity of the horror genre. “We make up horrors to help us cope with our the real ones. With the endless inventiveness of humankind, we grasp the very elements which are so divisive and destructive and try to turn them into tools—to dismantle themselves. The term catharsis is old as Greek drama, and it has been used rather glibly by some practitioners in my field to justify what they do, but it still has limited uses here. The dream of horror is in itself an out-letting and a lancing.”

As a writer, I have found horror fiction a guilty pleasure. I strongly prefer hard science fiction where there is a logical and believable scientific explanation for events. Yet, like a helpless alcoholic drawn back to a drink, I am embarrassed and perplexed to find that I am periodically drawn back to read and write illogical stories about monsters and things that go bump in the night.

King once admitted, “I'm nervous about going down to the cellar: part of me keeps expecting the door to slam, the lights go out, and the knocking to start. But for me, at least, that's also part of the fun.” For us at the Quantum Muse, October is traditionally horror month. Our writers have taken a break from Science Fiction, Fantasy, and alternative drama to write these little trips into the darkness. We hope you enjoy the danger, and the thrill and the fun.

Your comments are welcome.

2014-10-16 10:19:08
GordonRowlinson - I am embarrassed to admit that I too enjoy horror mixed with funny-ness. It lets one enjoy a trip to the supernatural but doesn't get too real. I always wanted to try Shaun of the Dead. Zombies can be funny.

2014-10-02 05:27:08
I think the primary thing is that we like being safe while we are being scared. If we're terrified - well that's our average work-a-day life. I really enjoy stories that turn horror into funny-ness...like Shaun of the Dead and the Clodhopper zombie story in this month's line-up. It deals with horror but says, Come on peeps - a lot of this is pure silliness. However, I just started watching The Walking Day - on reruns on broadcast TV - and enjoy it. Whenever it starts getting too spooky I go into my kitchen and get a cookie, to break the spell...safety. Nice...

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