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Why Is Horror so Popular?

Horror Throughout the Centuries

It is repulsive and simultaneously seducing. We recoil from its gruesomeness but we lust after it. The horror genre is undoubtedly one of the most paradoxical and contradictory literary forms but has still endured several centuries thereby influencing races all around the world. Having its origin in ancient rituals and prehistoric cults, horror entered tales and songs spread by bards in the Middle Ages in which crises such as waves of pestilence stoked further superstition. In the Renaissance, the work of alchemists and magicians mirrored this superstitious heritage and in the Gothic period and Victorian Age horror stories such as “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” converted the ancient fears into scaring comments on society. But why do we repeatedly expose us to the absurd atrocities comprised by modern forms of horror? And why is horror continuously such a popular form of entertainment?

Horror - a popular form of entertainment?

Howard Phillips Lovecraft

Lovecraft - his absurd and weird horror stories are a must-read for every true horror fan

Lovecraft - his absurd and weird horror stories are a must-read for every true horror fan

Our Historical Heritage of fears and Instincts

Various literary experts have endeavored to explain this past and current vogue of the horror genre and contradictory notions regarding the ominous charm of horror have been developed. However, various theorists agree that the historical aspects of the genre have contributed to its popularity. The American author Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1927) ascribed its fascination to the fact that horror deals with fear, a sentiment that does not only belong to the “primal”1 emotions but is also “[t]he oldest and strongest emotion of mankind”2. Moreover, he recognizes a “physiological fixation of the old instincts in our nervous tissue”3 demonstrating that the fears of our “primitive forefathers”4 are still omnipresent in the modern individual. Mathias Clasen (2009), a Danish author and editor, agrees with these observations. He further expresses that “fear and anxiety originate in an alarm system shaped by evolution”5 which conveys that we are still fearing the same as our ancestors. As horror appeals to exactly these sentiments, many people are scared by the weirdness it encompasses. Overall, the horror genre uses our historical heritage of fears and instincts to scare us which is why many people are fascinated by the genre.

Psychological Aspects: Our Penchant for Horror

As fear is part of our biological heritage, every single human individual recoils from similar entities demonstrating that horror is a universal human trait. Therefore, the psychological aspects of the genre amplify its popularity as well. In his book “Danse Macabre” Stephen King (1981), a virtuoso of horror, fantasy and suspense, discusses the psychology of horror and concludes that “[t]he potential lyncher is in almost all of us”6. He further elaborates that it is fun to see “others menaced – sometimes killed”7 since we need to let our inner and evil side out although society tries to suppress “anti-civilization emotions”8. In other words, King believes that everyone has an untamed, atrocious side which we need to feed to keep controlling it. This concept can further be understood regarding the Freudian psychoanalysis, “a method for treating mental illness and also a theory which explains human behavior”9. It is predicated on the “psychic apparatus”10, a structural model of the mind incorporating the id, the ego and the superego. The id is an unconscious part of the human mind acting according to the pleasure principle and instincts. Combining both theories portrays that we unconsciously crave horror, as our instincts and the id, urge us to satisfy our inner “potential lyncher”11. All in all, its psychological aspects further espouse the repute of horror since a penchant for ferociousness and barbarity lurks in everybody.

Have you ever ridden a roller coaster to impress your friends?

Have you ever ridden a roller coaster to impress your friends?

Do We Dare Ride the Roller Coaster?

Since we all encompass a morbid desire for horror, it also plays a role in society, which is why the sociological aspects of horror further augment its attractive force. As demonstrated previously, Stephen King (1981) recognizes that society tries to repress deviations from “the emotions that tend to maintain the status quo of civilization itself”12. Hence, the stigmatized feelings, horror evokes in us, symbolize a deviation from the norms of society. This demonstrates that by reading a horror story or watching a horror movie we can satisfy our demands privately and without having to fear sanctions. In contrast, the prohibition of the horrific emotions also provides the possibility to deliberately disrespect social norms which further explains the fascination of the horror genre. King also regards horror as a chance to show “that we can, that we are not afraid, that we can ride this roller coaster.”13 C