Clarissa Schmal lives in Denmark. In addition to horror, her interests include literature, global politics, and biology.
Horror Throughout the Centuries
It is repulsive yet 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, yet it has endured over several centuries.
With origins rooted in ancient rituals and prehistoric cults, horror entered the literary tradition through the tales and songs of Medieval bards. Waves of pestilence such as the Black Death further stoked superstitions related to these themes. 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 these ancient fears into frightening commentaries on society.
But why do we repeatedly subject ourselves to the absurd atrocities comprised by modern forms of horror? And why does horror continue to be such a popular form of entertainment?
Historical Aspects of Horror
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 of 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.
Sociological Aspects of Horror
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 Consequently, horror can serve as an opportunity to prove ourselves to other people. To sum up, the fact that society stigmatizes the affection to the monstrosities of horror further enhances our attraction and gives us the chance to prove ourselves to others.
Is There a Deciding Factor?
In conclusion, the historical, psychological and social aspects of horror emphasize the fame of the genre. Evidently, the fact that so many factors contribute to the popularity of horror, raises the question which aspect and reason is most pivotal and decisive. However, it must be recognized that it always depends on the audience, the individual exposed to the thrills whether the “profound sense of dread”14, that according to Lovecraft (1927) decides upon the quality of a horror story, can be reached. He even writes that only few people possess the “imagination and capacity for detachment from every-day life”15 to enjoy the horror genre. Therefore, a most important factor cannot and should not be named. All factors augment the fascination of horror and it is always contingent on the audience what makes the difference between ennui and thrills.
1-4: Lovecraft, H. P., (1927) Supernatural Horror in Literature. The Recluse.
5: Clasen, M., (2009) The Horror! The Horror! The Evolutionary Review. 1.
6-8: King, S., (1981) Danse Macabre.
9-10: Sigmund Freud’s Theories, Simply Psychology [WWW Document], n.d. URL https://www.simplypsychology.org/Sigmund-Freud.htmll. Accessed April 27, 2017.
11-13: King, S., (1981) Danse Macabre.
14-15: Lovecraft, H. P., (1927) Supernatural Horror in Literature. The Recluse.
© 2017 Clarissa Schmal
Zoha Junaid from Lahore, Pakistan on May 21, 2019:
The article was quite refreshing to read. Obviously, movies that entertain and frighten at the same time are a novelty. Moreover, psychological simulation that most good horror films give is a bonus factor and is sometimes scarier than the movie itself because it forces you to look inside yourself which in turn leads to the realization that we're all a little crazy too.
Bongogist from Nigeria on July 21, 2017:
Am I the only person that hate Horror movies ?
Angel Guzman from Joliet, Illinois on July 16, 2017:
The Amityville Horror and It are two great horror films with no gore. The gore itself can be too graphic for some. I enjoy horror films with a psychological edge not mindless explicit fatalities.
Hagy on July 16, 2017:
Thanks, haven't thought about this before. Really thrilling topic. But what about E.A. Poe? Somehow I miss some information about him -as a master of this genre.