Thursday, April 25, 2013

Fear Itself (1)

Last night, I met up with an old friend, who shares (amongst other things) my interest in horror movies and horror books. As usual, the conversation touched on the horror genre (though it also took in political correctness, the Office, weird customers-- we both work in libraries, after all-- Woody Allen, and lots of other stuff.)

So, coming home through the rain today, I found myself thinking about horror-- and fear.

Lots of people have asked the question; why do people enjoy being scared? It's one of those wonderful questions which is never in any serious danger of being answered. I've read and heard so many attempts to answer it, and none of them satisfied me in the slightest.

In fact, I'm not going to make any effort to answer it here. I just wanted to talk about fear, and the enjoyment of fear.

First off, I want to say that I think a lot of the appeal of horror has nothing to do with fear at all, at least not directly. To a great extent, we enjoy horror because of its atmosphere. There is a charm to darkness, and solitude, and mists, and moonlight, and shadows, and all the other props of the horror genre, that has little to do with fear. Perhaps the charm might be better described as romantic, or Gothic (even Gothick, if you like), or melancholy.

Horror is also about the outsider, and almost everybody (at one time or another) feels like an outsider, or wants to be an outsider. I think the horror genre appeals to the eternal teenager inside us-- the part that never stops feeling misunderstood, and not listened to, and a misfit in the sunlit, cheerful, everyday world. Vampires and werewolves and witches were paradoxically seductive creatures long before the Twilight saga, or even Interview with a Vampire, came along to labour the point so painfully.

(I was going to write that the physical transformations that so often feature in horror-- turning into a werewolf being the most obvious-- would also speak to adolescents, since their bodies are going through a rather dramatic process of change. But, you know, I think that's the kind of psychological claptrap that is bandied about all too freely. I don't remember being in the least bit traumatised or disoriented by the physical changes of puberty. Of course, it's probably a bigger deal for girls-- and one of the best horror films I ever saw in the cinema, a werewolf film about two teenage sisters called Ginger Snaps, had the rather witty tagline: "It's not called the curse for nothing.")

But I think that horror appeals to an even earlier stratum of our personalities than our teenage selves-- it awakens the child in us. Childhood is magical because it is full of wonder, and how can you have wonder without dread? When everything looms larger, how can it not loom more threatening too? Is there ultimately any stark distinction between wonder and dread? Are they both not simply the state of our spiritual pores, so to speak, being open?

I think everything that awakens a sense of wonder tends to appeal to us. The horror genre inspires us with a particular sort of fear that is especially coupled with wonder; it is very often the fear of the not-quite-known, the shadowy, the partially-guessed. For my own part, I find that horror stories that deal with some very concrete fear-- for instance, a maniac stalking somebody-- are less satisfying than horror stories that feature strange happenings and unearthly disturbances.

I have more to write about this, but not right now. I'll just publish this and then expand it later.

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