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Why do we love horror?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve known at least one person who thoroughly enjoyed reading or watching horror. In fact, according to a CBS News poll published last year, one in every two Americans are scary film fans. What is it about the spooky genre and subgenres that hold such allure?

I got my first introduction to the genre through Edgar Allan Poe’s Tell Tale Heart in middle school. I was completely horrified by it. When my English teacher told the class it was one of his more popular stories, I didn’t believe him. There was no way a person would willingly subject themselves to that feeling of impending death and terror. Right? 

My middle school self was oh-so-wrong. 

Today, I’m fascinated by the horror and thriller genres. My favourite horror film is the 2017 Spanish film Verónica. I’m also totally in love with Edgar Allan Poe’s thrillers. 

Why is that? Why do we love horror so much?

The impact of horror

Working on this article led me to reflect on how reading and watching horror has affected me. 

My favourite Poe story is The Fall of the House of Usher. The story focuses on an unnamed visitor at the family home of Roderick Usher. As members of Usher’s family sicken and expire, the physical house also cracks. This leads to an unexpected and morbid finale. I, without shame, revel in the figurative and literal collapse of the House. 

But why? 

The tension masterfully created in that story thrums through my whole body when I read it. Each step forward sets my nerves on fire with repressed terror, as things get spookier with each sentence. 

I felt much the same working through Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House as I watched it in the dead of night with my friend. I felt the adrenaline pumping through my body and my heart pounding because someone on screen is about to do something dumb (again), all from the comfort of my couch. It’s brilliant. 

Horror forces me to sit with all my muscles coiled, ready to spring into action. I’m assured the on-screen ghost can’t maim, possess or kill me (even if it feels like it might). It’s a safe way to experience fear. 

Of course, there are plenty of other adrenaline-worthy dramas to enjoy from the comfort of a couch. Romance, action and adventure also cause a stir. The thing those genres lack compared to horror and thrillers is the ability to heighten my senses. They’re exciting but they don’t put me on edge.

Horror is thrilling, frightening, and sometimes gross. A stack of scary novels set the mood for Halloween. (Mandy King)

Suspending reality and stepping into the spooky

Horror content stimulates in good and bad ways, as it’s simultaneously entertaining and terrifying. That doesn’t mean everyone who consumes horror-themed media adores it, but it explains the draw for those who do.

The beauty of horror films and books is the ability to experience scary events without being placed in those genuinely terrifying situations. Really good horror movies have the ability to worm their way into your mind that way. It all comes down to the willful suspension of belief. 

Plenty of horror subjects reside in the realm of the far-fetched. Ghosts, zombies, witches, cults with corporeal deities, demons and so on. By readily consuming horror-themed media, viewers acknowledge the content on screen despite its lack of realism. Because of the emotional safety net that the unrealisticness provides, viewers feel comfortable engaging deeper with the story.

Different levels of scary

There’s also nonfiction horror content. When a film or novel is based on a true story, things start to get nerve-racking. The viewer may still willfully suspend belief in some ways to swallow the unsavoury media. Real-life horror isn’t for everyone. I imagine these thrills are sought by people who love roller coasters and other fast rides.

The horror genre is super diverse. There’s practically something for everyone. Horror-comedy, horror-thriller, horror-sci-fi, horror-fantasy, you name it. 

Horror disconcerts viewers just enough while retaining that feeling of safety. Knowing the monster on screen can’t leap out and maul the viewer presents an opportunity to be terrified, horrified and satisfied simultaneously. It leaves me thinking things like, “I wouldn’t be that easily murdered.” 

At the end of the day, we love horror because it stresses us out, makes us anxious and throws our adrenaline through the roof in a safe way. It’s spooky season, let’s get scared!

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