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Horror stories: What makes us like the frights?

From Hitchcock to Stephen King, many have offered opinions on why there's such a thing as a delicious scare.

By Joseph Cooper / October 26, 2012

Stephen King's controversial horror essay 'Why We Crave Horror Movies' posited one explanation why viewers like to be scared, while Alfred Hitchcock, director of 'Rear Window' (r.) was famous for his jump cuts that startled audiences.

R: Paramount Pictures/AP

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Stephen King may be right about the allure of horror movies – but how sick is that?
 
King opens his provocative 1981 essay, “Why We Crave Horror Movies," with the diagnosis that all of us are mentally ill.  At the outset, he “clears” the millions of us “outside asylums,” explaining that we avoid institutionalization by figuring out how to masquerade as sane. According to the modern master of the macabre, while we pass ourselves off as normal, we crave the abnormal and relish testing our respective capacities to be frightened, shocked, and repulsed. If I read him accurately, those who crave horror movies are consciously (even enthusiastically) “daring the nightmare.”
 
I wonder if those who have seen carnage or actually suffered potentially grave (and I do mean grave) illness are as disposed to court cinematic shocks and nightmares? Are those who have witnessed atrocities or experienced uncontrived, unasked-for devastation inclined to be tested by on-screen ghouls and gore? Are such films targeting the young who have yet to be sufficiently unsettled, unnerved? Are fright films becoming more graphically horrific to captivate the unscathed, who are captives of shape-shifting images and “jump-cuts” and hand-held gaming mayhem? Do fright films succeed financially (even with double-digit admission prices) because many teens do not have the vocabulary, the patience and attention span, or the comprehension to read and savor a plot that develops over pages and pages?

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In “Why We Crave Horror Movies” (which is still included in countless English Comp anthologies and basic-composition courses – including mine at several community colleges) – King explains that the genre allows horror seekers to gauge their respective capacities to endure the gore and to have fun in what might be thought of as amusement parks for the psyche.
 
To his credit, after explaining the kind of entertainment and satisfaction afforded by the genre, King offered this perspective: “[T]his is a very peculiar sort of fun, indeed. The fun comes from seeing others menaced –  sometimes killed. One critic has suggested that if pro football has become the voyeur’s version of combat, then the horror film has become the modern version of the public lynching.” He’s probably right – but how sad.

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