Why We Love to Read Horror

Skull and Bones in the Woods
Category: Reading

At some point, when you grow up, you are expected to stop believing in monsters. Whether it is to protect your children, or because you feel foolish, the general understanding is that monsters don’t exist. I don’t know about anyone else, but I frequently find myself with a racing pulse and sweaty palms whenever I am home alone at night and there is a strange noise upstairs.

Wind howling, rain pelting against the window, I draw the blinds quickly without daring to look into the garden - because my imagination is certain I will see a figure standing behind the tree, peering in. I am ‘that’ adult who still checks in the nooks and crannies of my house before I sleep alone at night; or keeping all of my limbs in the bed, under the covers (just in case they are either grabbed from below or chopped off). Some call it irrationality, I like to think of it as creativity.

The media is rife with reports on the evil of mankind. If this is the case, why do we expose ourselves to horror in literature? If horror is merely a literary extension of this darkness, why is it so popular? Is it simply an opportunity to dwell on the collected miseries of life?

Stephen King explains ‘the great appeal of horror fiction through the ages is that it serves as a rehearsal for our own deaths.’ (King, 14, Night Shift). If a collective anxiety of the human condition is fear of death, then the ability to explore death in literature is cathartic.

The human race is driven by curiosity, particularly curiosity towards death

King offers alternative reasons for this popularity through describing the voracious appetite for ‘Splatterpunk’ (gore, extreme violence). ‘The appeal for horror has always been consistent. People like to slow down and look at the accident…The National Enquirer…had death photos of these two boys…of course I picked up a copy…I wanted to see the photographs of those two boys lying in a pool of blood’. (Magistrale, 5, Hollywood’s Stephen King).

Far from accusing humanity of possessing a strong desire to witness the mutilation of two young boys, in this quotation King is explaining the ability to explore death through fiction. The human race is driven by curiosity, particularly curiosity towards death. This unfulfilled curiosity develops into anxiety of the unknown and this is where the horror writer comes in. I feel there is a therapeutic aspect in allowing us to explore curiosity and anxiety at a safe distance. Problems arise when this safe distance begins to encroach on our personal space.

There is one character in horror with the ability to slip unnoticed into our subconscious. Someone who wears the same mask as our neighbour and represents the dangers of an unknown mind - the sociopath.

‘Horror appeals to us because…it offers us a chance to exercise…emotions which society demands we keep closely at hand’. (King, 47, Danse Macabre).

The sociopath in horror allows us to question what would happen if we rejected societal demands. Furthering our curiosity of death, the sociopath indulges the ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ portion of our brain. We are able to experience acts of severe torture, violence and cruelty (without tarnishing our conscience) through the fabricated realms of fiction.

From an early age we are taught the basic difference between right and wrong. As a society we generally strive to adhere to these principles. However, I believe there remains a portion of the subconscious, a rebellious voice that taunts us and asks us, ‘what if?’. What if we refused to remain on this path of morality?

Horror fiction offers the audience an anonymous and detached environment to feed a curiosity. In every story there is a literary representative of the ‘good guy’, someone who displays the light in humanity and fights the darkness. This character is the one we wish to identify with. Horror fiction enables us to do this while simultaneously indulging the rebellious portion of our subconscious by asking what would happen if we identified with the sociopath?

horror addresses personalised fears inside everyone

Fairy tales that we hear as children remain with us throughout our lives, and serve as reminders that good does exist. We harbour that positivity, the hope that everything will be alright in the end because, well, it has to be.

Whilst horror literature addresses personalised fears inside everyone, imagination and hope remain. This is the imagination that is sparked by the creativity of literature. I believe that ‘the mark of childhood that is left on the adult reader is a diminished sense of ‘happily ever afters’...it is vital to retain a sense of childhood; the best qualities being that of hope, positivity and imagination. (Christie, 15, Pennywise Dreadful).

We tell children there is nothing to be afraid of, that the Boogeyman is not real. Despite this, from an early age we expose children to fairy tale creatures and magical lands. For that moment in time, the child is unshakeable in the faith that belonging to every bridge there is a troll, every toadstool there is a fairy and every castle there is a princess.

Imagination is the foundation of childhood. As we grow older, that certainty fades. Adults are often exposed to the challenging realities of life. We become guarded, cynical and dark in order to protect ourselves. For every bad thing that happens, our resolve gets weaker and our belief in the unbelievable fades.

One thing that remains from childhood is fear and curiosity surrounding death, which explains the constant popularity of a genre that enables us to explore this fear in a fictional environment. I for one am a proud believer in monsters and fairies and gremlins, if for no other reason than to possess the ability to escape. The ability to switch off from the challenges of reality and for that moment, immerse myself in imagination and wonder.

Lauren Christie

Lauren Christie is a PhD student studying the Gothic influence in children’s and young adult literature at the University of Dundee. Her doctoral research explores Gothic literature from the eighteenth century to the modern day, whilst considering the wider benefits of promoting reading for pleasure, and formally embedding Gothic literature within Scottish schools.

Lauren’s previous academic background specialises in modern horror fiction, with a professional background working with local communities and libraries investigating children's reading choices. She is a current Jacqueline M. Albers fellow in children’s literature for the Reinberger Children’s Centre at Kent State University, Ohio.

Lauren was published in the inaugural issue of the online journal, Pennywise Dreadfulwith an article exploring “Stephen King and the Illusion of Childhood”. 

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