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.
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?
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.
Was it Alfred Hitchcock who said or wrote something about horror as a hobby – something about the "deliciousness" of being able to dip one’s toe into the ocean of fear?
Do “Goosebumps” stories and illustrations equate to baby steps into the ocean of fear?
Do the transporting Harry Potter tales allow for a scamper into the ocean of fear?
Do the transforming Twilight “nocturnals” allow for furtive wading into the eddies of what would normally be an ocean of fear?
Does Mary Shelley’s lumbering Frankenstein walk us into that ocean?
Do the Edgar Allan Poe samplers that impale school kids’ psyches every October amount to riptides or knock-over waves in the ocean of fear?
In recent years, reality TV scripts, in addition to setting up dating competitions and dare (gross-out) competitions, have taken voyeurs inside prisons, where there are, understandably, palpable tides of menace and waves of fear. Many inmates have dipped a toe into the ocean of fear. Many have waded into that ocean. And some, recklessly, and some, ruthlessly, have jumped (headlong and headstrong) into that ocean. They had acquired expertise in imposing fear, and had become accomplished in forcing others to cower and shudder in oceans of fear. Prison guards (excuse me, corrections officers) apprehend and have to suppress the menacings in the facility – and in themselves.
In my experience as an English Composition instructor (on loan from community college systems), some inmates, the more thoughtful and reflective (there are a few), were curious to read about right and wrong, about revenge and retribution, about evil.
In a previous Chapter & Verse column, I set out a list of some of the books I considered for the courses I devised and delivered over four years for select inmates.
Suspense and danger – and fear – are very much a part of “Cry, the Beloved Country” and “The Green Mile,” but there are descriptions in those novels that capture and stir; they create and conjure up scenes that were easy for the inmates to imagine, and very hard to forget. Alan Paton and Stephen King conceived and crafted people who had to deal with difficult circumstances and poignant tragedies that the inmates could relate to readily and cared about mightily.
For many inmates, words (for most of their troubled lives) had been in limited supply and variety and were used to bluff, rebuff, intimidate, threaten. Paton’s and King’s descriptions – of a room, a dwelling, a neighborhood, a confrontation, a desperate moment – created pictures that were “rewound” and “replayed.” The predicaments were relatable. In print (in hand, thanks to used-book shops and public library book sales), the descriptions of good guys and bad guys did not dissolve, there was no fade-out, no “jump-cuts.” The descriptions of what made some good or bad, or a little of one and then a little of the other, were “inked” to the good.
Can nonfiction compete? Surely, “The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates” and John Edgar Wideman’s “Brothers and Keepers” resonate for inmates. But with so much truth, so much reality, such works (assuming funding) would have to be worked through with care in many prison classrooms. Nonfiction chronicles can, in their way, be more scary than the obviously preposterous, because faithful recollections and reflections cannot be dismissed as products of some bizarre imagination or sick mind.
It may be that fiction is more “malleable,” for the injustices and terrors, while vivid and affecting, and (to prison inmates) somewhat relatable, are not as pointedly condemning. Their unreality provides an escape mechanism – a pivot from reality. Maybe fiction can be “played with” more comfortably in a Composition class, or even in a Psychology or Civics class. But from an institutional standpoint, from an oversight and management standpoint, fiction is suspect. And, with some justification, departments of corrections (DOCs) classify crime and horror movies as contraband, per se.
Even putting aside a DOC perspective, how many horror films (those blatant, made-to-up-the-ante-on-awfulness species) can seriously claim to have socially redeeming value? How many can claim to offer life-affirming lessons? How many connect to actualities that can be genuinely relatable and instructive?
Perhaps that’s the point: that the most ghoulish, the goriest, are so removed from humanity that they are readily perceived as entertainment, rather than as didactic.
Maybe the “test” and vicarious fun King cites and the “deliciousness” described by Hitchcock are why millions flock to be shocked and relish swapping recollections of gross-out moments.
Is the distance – the unreality – afforded by such films the reason why so few of my community college students are willing to read about and discuss actual horrors? Are the ultra-graphic depictions so heart-stopping that mere words on a page hold no wonder? Are the depictions so insinuating that there’s no incentive to become intimate with words?
To his credit, again, King acknowledged that horror films “deliberately appeal to all that is worst in us.” He sees these films as releases; they unchain morbidity, let loose “our most base instincts” and allow the voyeurs to realize “our nastiest fantasies.” Astutely, he observes that all this happens, “fittingly enough, in the dark.”
Given the reading “inaptitudes” of many students currently in middle school and high school, millions of new horror movie fans will remain in the dark.
Joseph H. Cooper was editorial counsel at The New Yorker from 1976 to 1996. In addition to his work for community colleges, he teaches ethics and media law courses at Quinnipiac University.