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The Horror Hypothesis: Why We Love Scary Stories

When I was 13, my friends and I would gather around a bench at lunchtime to tell each other horror stories.  And, I’ll be frank, I often didn’t know any, so I kept fairly quiet during these storytelling sessions. However, I had one friend who seemed to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of scary tales: an impressively dedicated, staying-up-until-2 am-researching type of knowledge. I used to hang onto her every word.  

The stories were never exceptionally long or complicated (certainly not up to the standard of canonical horror). Still, they always left me feeling on edge – as if the man writing in blood on the bathroom mirror was going to be teaching my period four maths class. And at one point, I discovered that I craved this feeling that the tales gave me; a sensation of life slightly lurid, more real.  

The extent to which monsters and villains are entwined and endorsed in our modern culture demonstrates a universality in our desire for horror; it evidently wasn’t just thirteen-year-old me who was slightly twisted. Especially as we approach Halloween, the popularity of horror is presented in windows crowded with ghosts and skeletons, in the last-minute psychological thriller marathon plans, and in the dread-filled excitement that courses to one’s fingertips in recalling a scene from a favourite Stephen King novel.  

But it is not often that we stop ourselves and question this intrigue of horror.  

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Nightmarish tales, even ones that are admittedly a little clichéd today, have terrorised us, both in waking and sleeping hours, since at least the Greco-Roman period and probably long before that in oral traditions. Why is it that we cling to them so fervently? 

When studying frightful texts in any genre and period, one aspect appears evident: the things we fear are not constant. That is to say, no list clearly defines the things that humans across time and space have found terrifying. Instead, our fears are the products of our contexts and contemporary preoccupations. It is not the monsters themselves that are scary, these fabulations are simply the literary manifestation of actual, real-life possibilities that frighten us.  

An example can be found in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, in which Faustus’ descent into evil reflects contemporary fears arising from Christian ideology. Jean Calvin’s late 16th-century doctrine focused on the idea of predestination which meant that God had already determined everything in our world, including whether your destiny was heaven or hell. As the English religious reformation developed, the Elizabethan Church adopted a similar ideology, creating a sense of powerlessness amongst the masses who had long been subject to religious fearmongering (particularly through iconography focusing on scenes of The Last Judgement) as a method of creating social order and cohesion. The resulting societal preoccupation with a lack of control over life and the afterlife is represented in Dr Faustus as he follows the worst path imaginable, seduced by the devil and refusing to repent. Perhaps, this is a comment on predetermination; it has already been determined that he is not to repent, meaning his decision is irreversible no matter how many opportunities for repentance he is given. Faustus gave a name and a face to the abstract fear of powerlessness and thereby gave people the opportunity to pour their fears into his text and then leave them there.  

A similar pattern can be seen in the Victorian Gothic such as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, revealing the societal fear of medical and scientific advancement. The stories explore the worst possible outcomes of this advancement in gruesome detail, giving people something solid to latch their fears onto before they become too overwhelming. In short, these horror stories tamed and controlled the nightmares that had taken over such nineteenth-century generations. 

Something similar can be said of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Like many Victorian works of literature, it explores the tensions and fear around transgressive sexuality in a society heavily controlled by Christian doctrine, heteronormative and monogamous values, and strict gender norms. Stoker also addresses the fear of the ‘Other’, weaving it in with the fear of sexuality to create the simultaneously alluring and terrifying character, Dracula.  

Here another key idea about the reading of horror is raised. It might be said that there is something innately perverse about human nature. Feelings of fear, discomfort, and disgust are generally avoided, but on a strange level, we are curious to experience them. We want to know, second-hand through safe-space mediums such as literature, what it is like. We want to see monsters and gore and sex. But we want to do it in a way that we know is void of danger but still enables us to revel in terror and disturbing enjoyment.  

Whether it be jump-scares or psychological thrillers, the desire to be frightened translates directly into our modern love of horror films, but the literature of this genre remains important. In Stephen King’s analysis of horror, ‘Danse Macabre’, he notes that it functions effectively precisely by playing on ‘phobic pressure points’ and ‘national pressure points’ , with the latter, according to him, being more effective as it doesn’t limit itself to a smaller group of people in the way that ‘phobic pressure points’ (being focused on things like spiders and heights) do. These ‘national pressure points’ are the nervous preoccupations of society: religion and hell in Marlowe’s time; science, sex and the ‘Other’ in the Victorian period; and now? Nuclear war, genocide, technology and the omnipotent state are only some preoccupations at the forefront of our minds. What horror writers achieve is to give a face to our anxieties. In King’s ‘The Shining’, the real horror in Danny’s life is ‘DIVORCE’, with the monsters of the hotel simply a physical manifestation.  

Our enjoyment of horror, therefore, seemingly stems from the distance between the signifiers (the monsters) and the signifieds (the ‘national pressure points’), allowing us to confront what scares us from the perspective of security. In a way, this distance could also be understood through Freud’s idea of the uncanny: horror is close enough to our fears for it to be recognisable to us but just so far away for us to be able to enjoy the terror. It is not the vampire that scares us, it is the sexually transgressive ‘Other’, the unknown, the incomprehensible ‘REDRUM’ written in the mirror. It is the thrill of confronting our fears through a distorted glass that draws us in; we are allowed to separate ourselves enough to be safe, but what is presented is distorted enough to disturb and tangible enough to remain terrifying.  

Image Credit: “Victor Frankenstein observing the first stirrings of his creature” by the Wellcome Collection is licensed under CC by 4.0.