Spooky Scary Stories: Why Does the Horror Genre Exist?

It’s that time of year again…the spooky time where all the spooky things come out and spook people.  THE SPOOKS!  They’re too spooky for me…

But in all seriousness, Halloween is a holiday associated with all the things that like to go bump in the night.  And sometimes squeak.  And sometimes “rawr”.  And sometimes they don’t go anything at all.  They just creep up behind you, sending a chill pulsing up your spine.  You know something’s there, but you can’t see it until the faint, smoke-like tendrils of its hands seize your throat and-

Oh right, I was supposed to have a point to all this.  Whoops.  Got a little carried away there.

Last year around this time I did a post entitled “The Allure of the Scare”, where I talked about why people like me enjoy the horror genre.  This year I want to take things a step further and ask the question “why”.  Why does the horror genre exist at all?  What purpose does it serve?

Horror can trace its roots all the way back to ancient legends and folktales, but it wasn’t really until the 18th and 19th century that horror really became a genre of literature.  It was thanks to the efforts of writers like Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe that horror came to the forefront of people’s minds.  Poe had his famous works like “The Raven” and “The Cask of Amontillado”, but Mary Shelley created one of the most iconic horror stories ever: Frankenstein.  I’ve always seen horror as an exploration of our fears, of the things that we cannot see or understand.  And sometimes, it is an exploration of our faults.  Frankenstein is a good example of this.  It is one of the original “science gone mad” stories, where the brilliant yet unhinged Frankenstein creates a monster that he cannot control.

Interestingly enough, in Shelley’s version the monster actually speaks and is quite eloquent.  He torments Victor Frankenstein after Victor refuses to acknowledge him and even tries to destroy what he created.  It’s a different tale than the film version, where the monster just groans and walks around causing havoc and mayhem.  In this sense, Shelley’s Frankenstein exposes the darker side of ambition, of the human need to push boundaries.  It’s not the most well written book (it suffers from what I like to call “ye olde prose” syndrome), but it is a classic in every sense of the word.  The style of writing may not stand up to today’s standards, but the story still has power.

But horror isn’t just a way to explore individual fears.  It’s a way to explore cultural fears as well.  Take the sci-fi/horror movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  In the movie, the inhabitants of a small town are slowly being replaced by emotionless, alien duplicates of themselves that look the same and know everything the original knows.  They’re pretty much identical, except they’re evil and stuff.  Basically this movie is often seen as a metaphor for the spread of Communism, or rather our fears of it at the time.  The original version came out in the 1950s, during the Cold War, an era that wouldn’t end until the early 1990s.  And it makes sense.  Replace the aliens with the Red Menace, and you’d have a pretty chilling propaganda movie.

And that trend continues even today.  One theory as to why demons are such a prevalent trope in movies today is because of our fear of terrorism.  Demons are a representation of that fear, the fear that nice, ordinary people could suddenly turn into violent weapons of destruction.

Of course it could also just be that one movie had demons in it, did super well at the box office, and now everyone is trying to capitalize on it.  But that’s a boring theory.  I prefer the interesting one.

But in any case, horror does well as a genre because, like I said earlier, it taps into things that other genres either can’t or won’t touch.  It reminds us of what it is like to be human, to be afraid.  In a strange way, horror feels more grounded than some other genres out there (despite a prevalence of paranormal phenomena in it).  It shows us characters that aren’t invincible or impossibly heroic in their actions.  Often, humans make stupid decisions, and characters in horror movies do the same (hey we should split up and search for that spooky noise).  Horror touches on those things that we often don’t like to talk about or acknowledge.

And sometimes, it’s just fun to be scared.  Because I’m a masochist like that.

 

Well that’s all I have for you this time.  Have a spooky, wonderful Halloween and tune in next Wednesday for another post!

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