Whether referring to the human experience or the genre of various art forms, most definitions of “horror” contain some combination of the following words: fright, terror, shock, disgust, aversion, and abhorrence. All of these words relate to expressing different degrees of the universal feeling we know as fear, an essential emotion with the unfortunate reputation of being a negative feeling.
Evolutionarily speaking, fear is largely why we are here today. Our ancestors survived to pass on their genes because their developed human brains found ways for them to deal with their fears, the same ancient phobias that still haunt us today: fear of the dark, of death, of predators and strangers, of uncertainty, of disorder, etc.
In modern American society, we specifically use the word “horror” to describe the most depraved acts committed by human beings. The media dramatically reports about the “horrors of war” or that “house of horrors” where the local serial killer’s victims were finally found. The word is used to refer to the things that we know exist but wish to avoid, often because they showcase the dark side of humanity that we know, deep down, we are capable of ourselves.
We are not so different from our ancient ancestors. We survive by assessing and often avoiding our fears, the greatest of which is sometimes ourselves.
As a genre, therefore, horror can be attributed to the artists and works that showcase these twisted and terrifying truths of the human condition. Over the past two centuries, such dark art has emerged in literature, film, music, video games, and just about any other medium of entertainment one can imagine (Evil Dead: The Musical? Yeah, it was awesome!). For generations, horror has been generating ever-increasing levels of fear, shock, and disgust, causing some to avoid the genre altogether. Once again, people choose to circumvent their fears. True to definition, people often display their aversion and even abhorrence to the horror genre.
For some of us, however, this is not the case at all. Horror fans find the opposite to be true. Rather than aversion, we feel attraction. We are drawn to the dark, demented, and disgusting arts. The reasons why one may be attracted to this genre can be, like a horror plot, shrouded in mystery.
Whether one is a fan or an artist, a love of horror is not necessarily a reflection of character. It is as unfair to judge someone based on their taste for dark arts as it is to judge another for their liking of comedy or jazz music or chili dogs. Inevitable exceptions to the rule aside, horror fans know the difference between the genre and real-life horror, and they only enjoy the former.
Some may choose to avoid the genre, but the truth is that horror is around us every day. As previously discussed, fear has been a part of life since the time of our ancestors. In the internet age of (mis)information, however, we are assaulted daily by the panic of possible danger on top of all the things that actually cause healthy fear for us.
Barry Glassner first wrote about our “culture of fear” in 2000, a phrase that perfectly describes our society now more than ever. We are bombarded every day by threats from everywhere, from terrorists overseas to murderers right next door. The media uses scare tactics to get your attention and increase their ratings, while their sponsors use your fear and anxiety to influence you to purchase products and convince you to consider medication. Politicians use them to get your support. Societal norms thrive on our fears of rejection. They are all looking at you, and they are all going to laugh at you. They are always watching you; they want your money, your guns, and your firstborn. Everything needs credit and insurance, and then the hackers are just going to steal your identity anyway. Murder, death, kill! News at 11.
The heavy hyperbole that saturates our culture is embarrassingly obvious when one pays attention. Yet fear remains one of the most powerful ways to motivate people to behave or feel a certain way, especially when it taps into those ancient phobias we inherited from our ancestors.
Creators of the dark arts are aware of the power of fear and the unknown, and they use it to peer into that primal part of our collective psyche. The imagination of the horror artist uses flights of the fantastic to create fictional stories out of real-life threats, creating a means of escape and a sort of therapy through entertainment.
Through a well-written horror story, fans can connect with characters in perilous situations to learn how to face their own fears and perhaps conquer them. Sometimes we even sympathize with the monsters; we see how they became what they are and realize that we must be careful not to become monsters ourselves. By embracing the fears and evils that haunt us, we learn more about ourselves and the world we live in. By looking monsters in the eyes, we see deeper into the true meaning of being human.