Horror is a topic that strikes many people as odd. Despite the stigma, there are many people who find appeal in the macabre. Whether we are aware of it or not, dark tales makes us feel safe.
For the average person, life is simple. We have stress and responsibilities, but our lives are for the most part uneventful. This is why we seek out excitement. Everyone enjoys the rush of feeling their heart race, and horror can provide this rush. We can have our senses overtaken as we experience a horrific moment. The sights and sounds of seeing a lurking presence or watching brutality unfolding on the screen fulfills this need.
Professor Dennis Shoemaker, psychology professor at HACC’s Lancaster campus asked, “What is it they’re getting out of it? That will vary from person from person. They must gain something from it though, something positive that they find rewarding.”
There are things that frighten us as humans. We fear wilderness, what lies beyond the borders of civilization. Then there are the demons that lie within, our societal fears. People around us have secrets; their normalcy a mere façade. The mentally unhinged who seek to do us harm and are among us.
We fear the pursuit of knowledge, that our need for progression will blind our moral compass. That man, knows not what he dabbles with. And last, the mysterious and supernatural phenomena beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature.
These fears share a major thread, threat of the unknown. Esoteric elements force us to wonder about our understanding of reality. H.P. Lovecraft, a writer well known for this characteristic, explains this sentiment thusly, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Humans want to be aware of the dangers around them, especially the fatal kind.
One of the rewards Shoemaker mentions is identity. Human individuality is valuable and partaking in things we find edgy and dark is something we can wear like a badge. It gives us a way to display our strength. That horror brings you no fear or discomfort, but rather enjoyment.
“I want to look at something different than the rest of the people are looking at,” Shoemaker said. “That’s the allure; I’m different than you are. I’m doing something that other people aren’t doing. Be different from the mainstream. That’s the reward. “
For others, there is a curiosity. To face that, which others turn away from, we need to know and see what is hidden away. They enjoy witnessing things play out or trying to wrap their minds around foreign moral code.
What causes a horror antagonist to fall so low that they’re willing to participate in acts of cruelty? Will they be stopped? Brought to justice? How would the real world deal with these morbid situations; and are we, both as individuals and a collective, ready to face such challenges should they emerge from this dark genre into the light of day?
Engaging in such dark interests can feed certain parts of our mind, and that can come with risks. Professor Shoemaker goes onto explain, “I would say it’s healthy, so long as you can compartmentalize and it doesn’t become your whole existence.”
He further discusses the nature of human psychology, “I think that all of us are born with the potential to be aggressive; we’re born to be mean, at times.”
There can be an unknown region of ourselves that is tapped into when exposed to horror and the macabre.
Shoemaker shared an old Native American proverb of a chief who tells his son that we all have two wolves inside of us. One who lives in the shadows and fights, and another that basks in the sun and is kind. The son asks his father which one will win? The chief responds, the one you feed.
In our day to day lives, we see no demons, murderers, or eldritch beings. By engaging in mock or fictional scenarios we can face our fears. We either succumb to the overwhelming feeling of terror and disgust or we face it and learn to cope.
You put the book down, the screen goes black, or the masks come off and we have been pulled back. The events that unfolded may linger with us, but it reminds us that the world we inhabit is safer. The feeling can be cathartic as it allows an escape from real world stresses. Our body has a positive response to letting the tension and fear go.
Entering those dark worlds can help us better see the light of our world. Life may not be completely safe and horrible things still happen regularly, but it pales in comparison to the bleak and tormented worlds contained in the realm of horror.