The Comfort in Horror

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Horror: an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust.

Horror is an odd genre. Its content, as its name suggests, is designed to instill a feeling of fear, shock, or disgust in its audience and yet there are many of us who go out of our way to delve into the genre through books, games, tv shows, and films. Why do we wish to have such an experience? What is it about the horror genre that draws us into its shadows and jumps out at us with a bang? It is a genre that has evolved throughout time to stay relevant and, when done well, there really is a strange comfort in horror.

There’s nothing new about scary stories. Search back through human history and you’ll find dark tales and spooky stories designed to teach and entertain and give us reasons for why we are afraid of the unknown. There are unique monsters and devils to almost every culture in history designed to explain strange situations and understand the fear of the people and the stories have continued to develop and keep tight their stranglehold on society as we progressed to new types of storytelling. Horror is ever changing and connects itself to a shared trauma of the times, holding a dark mirror up at society and forcing us to take a good look. The stories can often be warning tales, developed with a message for its audience about the dangers of taking certain pathways. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein forced people to look at the danger of pushing the limits of science without knowledge of what will happen next. It also explored the idea of loneliness and rejection in society and its causes. It was a book that was ahead of its time and entertained its audience even whilst scaring them. The 1800’s brought scary stories like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Turn of the Screw. All have been adapted for the screen to various degrees of success, each designed to unsettle the viewer. In the early days of cinema, horror was all about monsters. Nosferatu, The Werewolf, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and others were memorable, successful productions. The 1930’s saw Bela Lugosi become a star playing Dracula and this was also the period where these dark films had the ‘horror’ label attached. Of course, the next decade witnessed the true horror of the Second World War, and this brought with it an interesting evolution in the genre.

The fear of atomic power and invasion and the shared trauma of what the world had witnessed led to films such as Godzilla, and The War of the Worlds. Such films provided their audiences with a chance to process their own emotions and fear. Horror films allowed groups of people to come together in a cinema and witness their fears being played out in front of them on a big screen whilst safe in the knowledge that at the end of the film, they would be safe. This is where the comfort in horror lies. Whether it is a Psycho slasher masterfully brought to screen by Hitchcock, demonic horror in The Exorcist, or a bunch of Korean schoolkids hiding from a horde of zombies in All of Us Are Dead, the audience is able to spend time being frightened out of their skin but also fully aware that they will be fine afterwards. Scientific studies have even claimed that the resilience built up from experiencing events that scare us in a safe environment help us to deal with times of difficulty. Horror gives its audience the opportunity to play out their fears, to look for the monster under their bed or the ghost in the shadows and see the event play out in safety. They can walk away from the content after getting their shocks and scares completely safe in the knowledge that they are okay. It is similar with grimdark content. The same ideas draw audiences to grimdark and horror. They allow audiences to process darkness in a safe and manageable manner. If something is overwhelming, the book can be closed. The episode or film can be paused. The game switched off. It is under the audience’s power and control. And this control is everything. The emotional regulation skills developed through experiencing content that scares us can be of great use. It has often been the unknown that has scared humans throughout history, this is why we spend so much time searching for answers to big questions. Horror offers some answers in the form of worst-case scenarios and gives the platform for us to tackle them safely. The story might scare us, but at the end of the day, it’s just a story. It is all about the experience.

Horror provides a space for people to come together and face their fears. The Last of Us tv series hit very differently to the game due to the fact they were released either side of an actual worldwide pandemic. The beats of the story were the same but the connection and understanding of the audience added that extra uncomfortable layer to the tv series. We had seen what a pandemic was like. There were still supernatural elements to the story but it felt more real than in the game. There were ideas, moments, actions that were more easily identifiable and allowed some to immerse themselves in the story and perhaps even find comfort in seeing Joel deal with some of the issues in the dystopian world. Video games can be quite interesting when looked through the lens of processing our fear and developing resilience. In The Last of Us, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, or Bioshock, the gamer takes on a more active role and is given a chance to feel in control (at times) of the path the character is taking and the comfort comes with taking on the antagonists with a controller in hand and feeling as though you are playing an active part in facing those fears. There is a catharsis in all horror and grimdark content. They allow audiences to tackle frightening concepts, supernatural or not, in a safe space where they can process their fears at their own pace whilst also promoting discourse with others.

It may seem strange to devour media created to scare but the human experience calls out for us to feel something. This is what good horror does. It makes us jump. It frightens us. It shocks us. It makes us think. It makes us feel. And that’s what we need from any story. Thankfully, horror remains as popular as ever. It, A Quiet Place, The Last of Us, Get Out and so many more stories are proving that we still want to be scared and we’re all the better for it. It may not be for everyone but well-written horror serves a bigger purpose than just entertainment. It remains relevant for each generation and can be mapped alongside some of the major turning points in human history. The world wouldn’t be the same without horror. And I think you’d agree: a world without horror would be an absolute nightmare. So turn the lights off, grab some popcorn, and try not to scream. Facing your fears is actually quite good for you, and you’ll have loads of fun doing it!

 

The Comfort in Horror was originally published in Grimdark Magazine Issue #35.

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Aaron Jones

Aaron Jones

Aaron S. Jones is the author of Memories of Blood and Shadow, and The Broken Gods trilogy. He is Head of School at a school in Kent, UK and when he is not tearing his hair out at students struggling with their, they're and there, he is tearing his hair out as he dies for the thousandth time on Elden Ring. You can find him on Twitter @HereticASjones where he is most likely procrastinating for hours at a time instead of focusing on his Orc murder mystery.

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