Commentary, Life

HorrOctober: What is Horror?

October is here, and with it a month of anticipation for the day when monsters and demons and all things associated with the infamous bump-in-the-night, play on young minds. Horror is an old skill; humans have been experiencing fear since their conception, when our lesser evolved selves developed the art to prevent the shedding of our mortal coils. Evolution may have adapted how and why we feel terror, but the foundations of the emotion remain almost the same; mostly, stay away from things that will cause you harm, and maybe ultimately an obituary. Of course, nowadays, ‘things that cause us harm’ are far more complicated, and connected to matters such as social standing, ambitions, and relationships, as well as the old-hat, not dying paradigm. Horror fiction creates a safe space in which we can explore the most primal psychological aspects of ourselves, and thousands of hours a year are spent watching, playing, and reading stories meant to startle, terrify and confuse us, and oddly enough we seem to like it. Let’s delve into what horror is, and why, despite its negative emotional connotations, we seem to enjoy it so much.

Horror is about creating an emotional response; its about eliciting dread in an audience, causing some aspect of fear. Everyone knows fear, it’s a universal constant experienced by every conscious living thing on our planet. Drawing out these, otherwise unwanted, feelings is a psychological game; authors and storytellers actually have to trick us into a deeper sense of discomfort and uncertainty. Horror is about evoking atmosphere, shutting away familiar ideas that allow us as an audience to order the rational universe. Clever writers understand that dread comes from what we don’t know, rather than what we do.  Back in the days when we understood very little about science and the capabilities of technology, for example, creative minds drummed up images of monsters crafted from the limbs of the dead, and potions that could twist personalities. Modern society dictates these things aren’t actually … well… possible, and that’s why stories such as Frankenstein and The Tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde no longer cause the paralysing effect they once did. Today, most horror ether seeks to encroach on the still questionable land of the paranormal, or pulls on certainties like sociopathic murderers or wild beasts.

Fear has a history with humankind, as I previously mentioned, but so does our ability and, sometimes, our want to cause fear. Horror taps into our base instincts and darker urges. Part of the psychology of horror lies in understanding the primal fears that have anguished humanity since we lived in caves and clubbed dinosaurs. Mostly that things bigger than us are dangerous, but to things that are smaller or weaker than ourselves we’re the danger. Horror is a means of exploring the way we can justify our most bestial and brutal behaviours. In horror, villains have to be more interesting and developed than the heroes, because the villain is an expression of the most repulsive, yet enticing aspects of human nature. As such, horror has a cathartic facet, allowing an audience to witness things insurmountably larger than themselves and explore hopelessness, without being in any real danger.  Everyone experiences these ideas differently, because fear has a personal touch.

The key to good horror remains lies in the fact it affects us all differently; great horror artisans have learned a universal truth: we will always scare ourselves far better than they can. Given the right triggers, we’ll shoot the fear gun before we even realise we’re holding it.  Horror takes us into the unknown, on a dark and terrifying journey, which is somehow still fascinating. By breaking down our logical sense of otherwise comfortable environments horror makes us question our sense of placement, of humanities power and capacity. It gives us the right frame of mind, and lets our imaginations’ fill in the gaps it refuses to reveal, compelling our curiosity. Horror has to walk that line between fear and intrigue. It has to repel us, certainly, but not enough to dispel the natural human urge to know more. Knowledge is power; we’ve spent centuries curing phobia and superstition with understanding, and our weakness is in not knowing. Great horror can play that dichotomy to its advantage, pitting our primitive instincts to flee, against our evolved need to know more, even if that understanding makes things worse.

To summarise, I’ll quote Mr Dougless Winter:

Horror is that which cannot be made safe – evolving ever-changing – because it is about our relentless need to confront the unknown, the unknowable, and the emotion we experience when in its thrall.

This month I’ll be exploring the many elements of horror, in what I proudly name HorrOctober, They’ll be book reviews, write-ups of things that scare me, and ‘essays’ (I use lightly) exploring why certain things scare us.

Happy HorrOctober.


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