Thursday, November 17, 2022

The Purpose of Horror

What is horror fiction (whether in print or on film) good for? My parents certainly took a dim view of my fervent interest in the genre, beginning at the age of twelve with my first reading of DRACULA. A familiar physiological or biochemical hypothesis proposes that reading or viewing horror serves the same purpose as riding a roller coaster. We enjoy the adrenaline rush of danger without having to expose ourselves to any real risk. Personally, I would never get on a roller coaster except at gunpoint, to save someone else's life, or to earn a lavish amount of money. I'm terrified of anything that feels like falling and don't like any kind of physical "thrill" experience. Yet I do enjoy the vicarious fears of the horror genre. Maybe real-life thrill rides or extreme sports feel too much like actual danger for my tolerance level, whereas artistic terror feels controllable.

H. P. Lovecraft famously asserts, "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest fear is fear of the unknown." Therefore, horror is a legitimate subject for art, even though he believes its appeal is restricted to a niche audience. We might link Lovecraft's thesis to the physiological model, in that the feared unknown becomes manageable when confined within the boundaries of a story.

In DANSE MACABRE, Stephen King suggests that all horror fiction has roots in our fear of death. Embodying the threat of death in the form of a monster entails the hope that it can be defeated. I think it's in 'SALEM'S LOT that a child character says, "Death is when the monsters get you."

In an interview in the October 2022 LOCUS, author Sarah Gailey maintains that "horror is designed to put the reader in touch with an experience of the body, where that experience is one that they typically would not wish to have." Our culture separates body and mind from each other, while, Gailey says, "Horror serves to remind us that those things aren’t separate. The ‘I’ who I am is absolutely connected to the physical experience of my body and the danger that body could face in the world, and horror does an incredible job of reminding readers that we live in bodies, we live in the world, and we are creatures."

This comment reminds me of C. S. Lewis's remark that the truth of our nature as a union of both the spiritual and the physical could be deduced from the existence of dirty jokes and ghost stories. Bawdy humor implies that our having fleshly bodies is somehow funny, shameful, or incongruous. No other species of animal seems to find it funny just to be the kind of creature it is. Supernatural horror highlights the sense that separation of body and soul, which should form a single, unified entity, is deeply unnatural. Hence we get the extremes of zombies (soulless yet animated bodies) and ghosts (disembodied spirits).

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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