The Horror Genre: More than Mindless Entertainment
By Logan Volkert
Why do we indulge ourselves in the horror genre? Do we just enjoy being scared, or is there a deeper reason for the grotesque’s appeal? I would argue that the horror genre is not just mindless entertainment full of jump scares, cheesy effects, and needless images of gore. Rather, it’s a genre that acts as a magnifying glass through which we can view the world and ourselves. You see, there’s a reason that classic works like John Carpenter’s Halloween have stood the test of time while also fostering a new age of horror fiction. Unlike in other genres, horror directly deals with the darker sides of reality that many people aren’t comfortable talking about. The problem is that reality is inherently dark. We see this in the news and throughout our daily lives, but because of the taboo nature of speaking on topics like violence and death, nobody ever spends time discussing all that is unpleasant.
This notion leads us into a theory put forth by the thinker, Sigmund Freud. According to Freud, human beings have dark impulses and thoughts that stem from the dark side of reality. Because of the taboo we just mentioned, these impulses and thoughts become repressed, and they go undiscussed and undealt with. However, human beings can only fill their bottles so full, and Freud argues that we need an outlet for decompressing. This is where the horror genre comes into play. By reading scary books or watching scary films, we can safely experience and unbottle these darker emotions in a controlled, inconsequential manner. Adding to the validity of this thought, the renowned philosopher Aristotle proposes a similar theory.
Referred to as catharsis, Aristotle argues that people actively seek out undesirable emotions so they may then expel them in a safe way. As Kristina Clark writes in a horror genre study, “through the onstage representation of painful events, these events first arouse in its audience the negative emotions of fear and pity and then allow for the expulsion or purgation of those emotions” (Stuprich, qtd. in Clark). As we’ve discussed, society frowns upon that which is dark, frightening, or grotesque. The emotions that accompany the dark are, however, natural. When we don’t allow ourselves to indulge in that which is natural, undesirable thoughts begin to build up in the way that Freud proposes. Because of this, the horror genre is appealing not because it scares us, but because it allows us to face our fears and let them go without ever having to step foot in the path of real danger. R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series does a fantastic job of providing this method of escape for younger children, as his stories are scary but not over the top. If this all sounds a bit too philosophical, scientific studies on horror have begun exploring some of the more concrete benefits the genre provides.
Researchers at the University of California, Irvine have found that the horror genre can potentially help in revolutionizing how our healthcare system manages mental illness. In their research, they found that frightening experiences and emotions foster communication between the amygdala, the region of the brain that controls the fight or flight response, and the hippocampus, the region of the brain that controls learning and memory functions. According to their research, the amygdala “first extracts emotional relevance and then sends this information to the hippocampus to be processed as a memory” (Zheng). This information is important because, as the researchers note, “current drugs available to treat anxiety disorder bind to large areas of the brain, leading to unwanted side effects” (Zheng). By seeing how the brain manages negative emotions, we can begin developing medicines that target only the regions of the brain that need targeting.
In conclusion, sure, the horror genre is a popular form of frightful, sometimes mindless entertainment. However, the genre also allows us to release negative emotions that often weigh us down, and it can give us a more positive outlook on life when things go dark. Better yet, studying the horror genre can further our fight against mental illness by allowing us to create medicine that is more effective in targeting and managing the regions of the brain responsible for disorders like anxiety.
Clark, Kristina. “Horror: A Study.” Sshorror, facultyweb.cortland.edu/kennedym/genre%20studies/sshorror.htm.
Zheng, Jie, et al. “Amygdala-Hippocampal Dynamics during Salient Information Processing.” Nature Communications, vol. 8, no. 1, 8 Feb. 2017, doi:10.1038/ncomms14413.