Feb
5
2015

Fatal Attraction – Thoughts on Horror as a Genre

A Guest Post By Nicole Larsen

Just recently I was complaining to a friend of mine that no one in my life will watch scary movies with me. “Well,” he said quite reasonably, “It’s like spicy food – some people have a sensitive palate and just can’t handle it.” As a lover of spicy food as well as an avid horror fan, this got me thinking about the topic of fear. Why do some people like scary stories? I wrestled with the question for a couple days and then I did what any self-respecting researcher would do; I Googled it.

The main explanation that I found was that horror provokes in us an adrenaline rush. It gets the blood flowing. It makes us feel alive. And yet I don’t think it’s as simple as merely sating the thrill-seeker within us. The movie Die Hard undeniably gets the heart pounding (Guns! Bombs! John McClane kicking terrorist ass!), but there is a big difference between that and, say, The Omen. Objectively speaking, the criminal mastermind Hans Gruber in Die Hard is just as frightening as the evil child Damien. In fact, if I remember correctly, Hans Gruber causes more deaths. There are two questions here. Why does one of these movies cause nightmares while the other does not, and moreover, why are people drawn to that which gives them nightmares?

The answer to both questions is the atmosphere. Where Die Hard is brash and in-your-face, The Omen is a slow and suspenseful buildup. The soundtrack, the lighting, the camera angles… all of it is designed to heighten tension so that when the right moment comes, the viewer is terrified out of his wits. There’s a certain haunting beauty in stories that are emotionally intense, even if those emotions are negative.

And then there’s the question of the bloody, visceral, Saw-style kind of horror. Stephen King once said, “If I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud.” Incidentally, King has written fifty-four novels, most of which are in the horror genre, and among them numerous best-sellers. So why are we so attracted to the work of someone who aims to horrify and gross us out? Evolutionarily speaking, shouldn’t we be wired to avoid pain and fear and disgust?

I have a couple of theories. It’s cathartic. It’s delightfully transgressive. We admire the artistry of the special effects – the bigger and more violent, the better.

But most of all, I think it’s a natural and human tendency to battle strong emotions with exaggeration. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry and his friends are taught a spell in their Defense Against the Dark Arts class to defeat a monster called a Boggart, which has the ability to take the form of whatever frightens you the most. This spell, “Riddikulus!”, transforms the Boggart from something terrifying, for example, a giant spider, to something laughable, e.g. a giant spider wearing roller-skates and clumsily falling all over itself. We attempt to do the same thing with violent, gory stories. The more over-the-top, the better, because the more over-the-top something is, the more it borders on the absurd, and the more absurd it is, the more our horror of it lessens. The outrageous gross-out is our version of “Riddikulus!” that allows us to better face our deepest, darkest fears.

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Nicole Larsen is a physics PhD student at Yale University, an aspiring fantasy novelist, an incurable and unabashed bookworm who is singlehandedly keeping the Amazon Kindle Store in business, and a Southern belle who divides her time between Connecticut and South Dakota but longs to get back to warmer climes.

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