The Paradoxical Appeal of Horror

A woman with black monster hands over her face.

I write genre fiction—mostly horror. I’m also a brain scientist. Occasionally, I like to combine those things and explore the irrationality of the horror genre with an attempt at rational thought.

Have you ever thought about how damn strange horror really is? Yeah yeah, obviously spooky stuff is strange, and it’s always been an outcast of a genre due to the icky subject matter, but I propose that its strangeness goes deeper than the obvious, because horror is inherently paradoxical. In horror, what’s bad is good. The worse it is, the better it is. How does that even make sense?

Horror fiction goes through periods when it’s embraced by the mainstream, like the “post-horror” label a few years ago, when horrific media stumbled into the territory of Very Serious Critics™ and was judged to occasionally have redeeming qualities beyond the ghosts, goblins, and guts. That doesn’t change the fact that the core of horror—the defining quality—is repulsion. If it doesn’t contain something you want to turn away from, then it’s not horror. Why would anyone be attracted to repulsion?

Are people who like to be scared defective?

It’s tempting to think there’s something wrong with people who are really into horror. Maybe some neurons got wired into the wrong places in their brains, and they actually experience bad things as good. They are the defective humans who, outside the comfy modern world, would have been compelled to enter Earth’s darkest corners, only to add to the pits full of skull fragments and femurs waiting there.

But I don’t buy that anyone who likes a good scare is defective.

In my PhD thesis on horror (read it here if you have a few hours to spare), I used a special technique to get at people’s gut reactions to frightening media, free from cultural baggage and other explicit thoughts that come into play if you simply ask someone “do you like this gushing neck stump? I know you’re not supposed to, but do you???” That’s one of the reasons it’s so hard to understand why people like horror. You can’t just ask them.

Coming at it more indirectly, I found that when you pull out the repulsive elements of horror movies and show them to people, everyone has a negative gut reaction. There are no—or at least very few—people who see something scary or gross and feel pleasure instead of repulsion.

I think this applies even more strongly to written horror. There are no noisy jump scares or visual gross-outs in a novel, so there’s even less room for the theory that people consume horror because they’re getting some cheap thrill out of it (not that there’s anything wrong with a good cheap thrill—we may be on the verge of a recession, after all). Those defining repulsive elements are necessary for horror, but not sufficient for enjoying it. There must be something deeper. Something that I believe gets at the core of what it means to “like” something, and ultimately, what it means to be happy.

An explanation for the paradox of horror

Let’s go back to what it even means to “like” something. Feeling joy is certainly one route to liking. When you eat a piece of cheesecake and your tongue tells your brain to leak happy chemicals into its mushy folds, sure, you like cheesecake. However, we humans are complicated, and the range of human experience is much broader than a neural thumbs-up or thumbs-down in response to a given thing.

When it comes to horror, here are a few reasons to “like” a scary story despite your brain often giving it a vigorous thumbs-down:

  • Relief. It feels good to be done with a bad experience. It may even feel better than how you felt before the bad experience. So part of enjoying horror may be chasing a high—not during the scary bits, but during the comic relief, or when there’s actually nothing behind the door, or when the big bad monster is finally defeated.
  • Expression. People like to express themselves, and a person who likes horror may want to express that they are the type of person who likes horror. In my research on the topic, I’ve found certain personality traits that predict self-reported enjoyment of the genre—for example, people who describes themselves as agreeable are less likely to say they like horror, and people who describe themselves as thrill seekers are more likely to say they like horror. However, crucially, they had the same emotional reactions to horrific imagery. It’s not immediate emotion, but more of a self-expression thing—we all construct an image of how we see ourselves, and how we hope others see us. Saying we like horror is one small part of that. And I don’t think expressing ourselves through our preferences is “fake” in any way; it’s core to how we operate as social beings, and as genuine as loving cheesecake.*
  • Connection. Serious academics have named this the “snuggle theory” of enjoying frightening media. It mostly applies to film—two people watch a scary movie together and one acts scared while the other acts brave, which brings them closer together, which leads to babies and the continuation of the human species. I think it applies platonically too, though. The horror community is one of the most cohesive and generous I’ve seen, so our shared love of getting freaked out can lead to connecting with awesome like-minded people.

For me personally, it’s all of the above, and one more thing that I haven’t come across in the academic literature. I’m a scientist myself, so I have a weird need to understand the unknown, but also an attraction to the unknown itself. After all, science shines a light in the pit of the unknown, but there are always more shadows, and we have to be curious enough to jump in the pit in the first place.

For me, the most sublime horror is this poster for It Comes At Night:

Or this video of unidentified howling in the woods:

Or this pie chart:

Or the best cosmic horror novels. Just pure unknown, or even better, unknowable.

I love that feeling of the unknown; the bittersweet unease from realizing there could be anything out there—or nothing. This feeling may overlap with fear, and it may be ambivalent rather than pure joy, but I think it’s worth seeking out. Maybe my attraction to the unknown is why I’m okay with, and accused of writing, novels without endings.

Human minds are some of the most unknowable objects in the known universe, especially as we’re all trying to understand them from the inside, but hopefully this little post helped in understanding, just a little bit more, why the human mind would be attracted to darkness.

*Another point under the “expression” theme: when I wrote about horror on Medium, a reader named Caryn wrote this comment about how expressing fear may be taboo in certain cultures, except during a horror movie. Horror can allow people to express themselves in a society where they otherwise can’t.

This was originally posted on Across the Board in 2019, in two parts.

See also: Stephen Kozeniewski’s great summary of what horror is, and what some of the key subgenres are.

Art by Prettysleepy2.




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