It’s a question I’ve heard several times before, and it doesn’t have a quick and easy answer. There are several reasons I enjoy the horror genre, both its consumption and its creation.
So when it comes to why I like horror (and for the purpose of this blog I’m going to be referring specifically to supernatural horror), the first step is to take a look at what horror is meant to accomplish. The first, and most obvious, is to frighten and disturb. This puts off some people, which is a fair criticism of the genre. Fear is a natural response to the presence of danger, and can be stressful. However, there is entertainment value in feeling fear without the presence of danger. Fear shares many of the same symptoms as other emotions, like excitement and sexual arousal – the pulse quickens, the flesh raises goosebumps, muscles tense, and eyes dilate. Fear, with the proper stimulus, can feel good to some.
As far as disturbing goes, that’s the mental stimulus horror provides, where fear is the physical. To be disturbed is to be made uncomfortable. A disturbed reader has left her comfort zone, and must now learn to navigate this unknown territory; she must learn how to empathize with characters she would otherwise write off as “bad people,” she must learn to understand justifications for decisions and actions she wouldn’t make. A disturbed reader faces what she considers dark and evil, and learns why she considers that to be dark and evil. Sometimes, she learns that what she thinks is evil, isn’t really all that bad after all. She can even learn that what she once thought was good is actually quite evil.
That is, of course, only one of the many things horror does. Writers of horror also seek to explore the darkest depths of humanity. We explore answers to questions like: What makes people do evil things? What’s really out there? What is that shadow lurking in the dark? In supernatural horror the answer is often demonic possession, or some other form of supernatural influence. It is sometimes revealed that the supernatural forces aren’t always the source of the evil. For example, in Stephen King’s The Shining, the spirits of the Overlook could not have taken control of Jack Torrence if he weren’t already a pretty awful person to begin with. Sometimes, the writer will conclude the real danger lies within the characters themselves, rather than outside sources.
Above all, reading and writing horror is an intense and personal experience. There are some who advise you not watch it or read it alone at night, but really, that’s the best time. Because if we can’t face our fears by ourselves in fiction, how can we possibly expect to face our fears in reality?