Horror, from my experience, is among the most divisive genres across all mediums. Yes, there is the old chestnut of "I like all kinds of music, except rap and country", but if a person doesn't like horror, they REALLY don't like horror. Roger Ebert famously said that Friday the 13th was teaching the youth that the “world is a totally evil place” that “will kill you”; a product of pure nihilism. It’s not a genre that inspires mild opinions. The most neutral perspective I can think of is that it allows us to explore our fears in a safe environment. Enough video essays and think pieces make that conclusion. I don’t think they’re wrong to conclude that. But it’s more complicated than that- If it wasn’t, this article could have just been a tweet.
This October, I watched a lot of horror movies. That’s not especially unusual, its the one time of year where I can enjoy spooky aesthetics out in the wild (albeit in a grossly commercial form) and foist Tetsuo the Iron Man onto unsuspecting friends. However, I watched a lot more horror movies than usual this year, with October just being an excuse to increase the rate evermore. And yes, things have slowed a bit, but I’ve still continued playing Until Dawn (it’s dumb!), I read Clown in a Cornfield (it’s good, with some YA novel caveats!) and watched Possessor twice (it’s great!) as well as many other horror and horror adjacent things. I usually try and avoid things tonally close to what I’m writing (the second plug in as many articles, sorry!), so it would make more sense to avoid horror altogether. And yet.
I’m not alone in this. Perhaps through the time dilation of the pandemic, I’ve seen plenty of people celebrate Halloween both far earlier and later than usual. So, there must be a reason- why? Is horror therapeutic? Or at least, cathartic? I’d like to say yes, based on movies like Don’t Breathe, crushing, nasty movies with powerful payoffs. But that’s hardly every horror movie. Even the old standard of prestige horror, The Exorcist, will not leave you feeling relieved of any real-life dread. Exorcist III: Legion had quite the opposite effect- freed from decades of pop culture baggage and lofty expectations, it wormed its way into my brain, leaving me with questions regarding my prior faith. So yes, it can have that effect, but without knowing exactly what you’re in for its far from a guarantee.
If we can’t guarantee that, then what is horror, then? Genres can be fickle. They can be so broad as to include things you would never compare. Spooky apples to scary oranges. Horror, to me, is more an emotion than it is a genre. Horror is arresting. Even at some of its worst, it exists as effective white noise. A lot of bad horror exists because its cheap. But because horror bypasses our logical brain and taps into something more primordial, we can be a lot more forgiving. Images from awful, dumb shit can stick in your brain. The terrible remake of The Eye that I saw when I was too young. I can still picture that hanging ghost, feet turned to the floor, oddly hovering. I feel I’m one of the few people who remembers Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm (not a bad film!), if only for how the bizarrely gross transformation of a child into a gingerbread man is seared into my brain.
H.P. Lovecraft once said that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”. I’m not sure what his citation was there, and it probably had something to do with the name of his cat, but there is something to that- both on a deeper level, and on the mass consumption of horror. I don’t consider myself desensitised. There are films I’ve watched in recent years that have truly shaken me. And well, in some ways I feel the need to be shaken. Horror is not the only thing that can do that, of course- the idea of the “life-changing” work of art wouldn’t exist otherwise. But because I have known it to produce that effect more regularly than other media, I continue to dip into the well. It’s comforting to know that I’m likely to be uncomfortable.
But there is also the question of timing. When is the right time to watch something bleak? It seems counterintuitive to do so in an unhappy mood, but so it goes when you feel cheerful. For me, the desire to watch something darker is not really an emotive one, rather one of curiosity. When I was first diagnosed with depression and social anxiety disorder, my doctor expressed concern in what I was reading, the now Twitter punchline of Infinite Jest. His concern was twofold- that the characters experienced and dealt poorly with my symptoms, and that the author had committed suicide. That depressing fiction can push you further into darker moods seems like a truism. But after years of experiencing depression, it's morphed from the self-destructive to a malaise that feels unending when you’re inside it. Less a feeling and more an un-feeling. Some horror fiction draws from this numb well in particular, but even that is enough to at least remove me from my regular mood. Here I agree with Lovecraft: fear is a stronger emotion than sadness and a more fitting opposite to joy. That’s where catharsis comes in: it would make sense to engage in something comedic if it didn’t all feel so fake. Listen to Adele for your break-up. Watch Laurie run from The Shape in your doldrums.
Is this an approach I recommend? I have some reservations. The line between a healthy outlet and coping mechanism is a thin one. I genuinely believe than fictional horror has value, not just in that safe exploration but in its sharp retaliation to numbness. Fictional is the keyword- the same curiosity has led me to read about unspeakable real-world horrors, things that I cannot even pretend I have catalogued based on historical merit. And as I can’t see inside your head, I can’t know if staying on the right side of that will give you the same benefit. And yet.
I’m afraid of the dark, but I still stare into it.
I’m not the only one.