What is it about horror?
The sun goes down, and my desire to be frightened, or enlightened, takes over.
My movie-watching habits go through ebbs and flows. Recently, like many during October, I’ve been on a horror kick. I watch several movies per week (and a few a day since being under the weather this week) and like to make notes about them in a notebook. For future reference, for my own fiction or nonfiction writing, or just to remember details I’ll surely forget in the morning after a late-night watch.
While flipping through these notes, I noticed that while I don’t watch as much horror as I do other genres, a disproportionate amount of my notes are about horror movies. It’s no secret there is something visceral about horror: it appeals to some of the most basic human emotions, fear and disgust. It toys with our biggest fears and makes a show, sometimes even a mockery, of death and gore. It is like nothing most of us, or any of us, experience in our lives. It can make us jump out of our seats or hear strange noises in the night. For some, it’s addictive; for others, it’s hellish. (There are even some pop-psych theories about this.) I love the heart rate increase and yelling at a character for doing something dumb, and the satisfaction of feeling a smart movie scare me.
There is a lot of talk about “elevated horror,” a term that I think I agree most with John “I don’t know what that means” Carpenter about. (In the same interview with The AV Club, he went on to say, “There’s metaphorical horror. But all movies have … they don’t have messages. They have themes. Thematic material, and some horror films have thematic material. The good ones do.”) Horror allows a unique opportunity to include (or, more recently, flaunt) “thematic material” that relates to the cultural moment.
This isn’t new in horror, even if the audience or critics are the ones creating that meaning. The 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been read as a critique on communism (though this was in effect debunked by the actor creator, but nevertheless it is a widely held myth). Carrie (1976) is a classic about a bullied teenage girl who is held back by both her peers and her overbearing, religious mother. Ari Aster’s fiery 2018 feature debut Hereditary is not-so-secretly about the horror of grief and the suffocation of family life.
No, it’s not usually the character-driven story that I fall in love with, but it is an experience.
But not everything needs a secret or serious or made-up meaning to be good and gross. Horror, like most things, is ultimately whatever you want it to be. I think that it’s fun. There is a reason I have such a strong reaction to horror. No, it’s not usually the character-driven story that I fall in love with, but it is an experience. Sometimes it’s a bad experience. It’s one of the more in-your-face and affecting genres there is, so people’s reactions are often just as extreme as the dismemberment and devilishness on screen. When playing with emotions and fight-or-flight reactions, it’s no wonder I write an essay in my movie notebook about how much I loved or loathed a horror.
My favorites will make me shrivel up in disgust…then smile because that’s exactly what it should do.
There’s a reason that horror and comedy are often paired: they (ideally) elicit reactions we have difficulty controlling. Humor is a counterintuitive but complementary response to fear. Even in the most intense horror movies, there’s often at least a little humor to break the tension, to break down the audience’s defenses, to make us care about the characters before they get scared to death. We connect emotionally to stories and characters.
A Nightmare on Elm Street-esque fears notwithstanding, I like going to sleep after a horror movie, knowing that it’s going to be just a dream, and that I already saw any potential nightmares played out on a screen. There is something about seeing nightmares, mine or someone else’s, made into a movie. It can’t hurt you. It can scare you, sure, but it isn’t real. Maybe it’s a reminder that nightmares are just that.
Thanks for reading Kyra’s Newsletter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.