Why Do We Chase Fear?
As a child, I had a debilitating fear of spiders, with no discernible root cause. The greatest terror came to life at night, for in the darkness the spiders emerged. By the hundreds, they crept beneath the blankets of my bed, swarming over my skin from head to toe. I would scream and cry, left utterly paralyzed in fear. But the spiders were held at bay by the light, so for years my mother burnt a lamp throughout the night while I slept.
The spiders were imaginary. The terror was real. Today, I no longer fear spiders. Or darkness. Or fright, for I avidly seek it out with every horror story or scary movie I watch.
I am not alone. The consistent abundance of available horror entertainment is proof of that, otherwise how could a movie like Paranormal Activity become an international hit, or Stephen King become a household name?
I think it would be safe to say that no one in full possession of their sanity actively seeks out true terror. What we do seek is safe, anticipated fear. We long to be tantalized and aroused. We want to gasp and shiver. We desire thrills and chills and shocks and shrieks. Could reading or watching horror stories be a surrogate sexual experience? Our reactions certainly suggest that possibility. However, tossing all Freudian analysis aside, there are several more prominent theories postulated to help explain why certain people are drawn to and enjoy fear-inducing entertainment.
- The Battle of the Sexes
There seems to be a general consensus that younger males tend to enjoy horror movies more than females do. Part of it stems from the male preference to visual stimuli, and since an abundance of horror films depend upon shock values, gore, and monstrous special effects, there is plenty to appeal to the young, male audience. It is also suggests that men are socialized to be strong and brave, to overcome threats and are primordially prone to face dangers for protective purposes. In times of stress, people crave closeness, therefore, a date night to a horror flick, or an amusement park, or even a haunted house might work well to the male's advantage as he shelters his frightened date from harm.
Yet, and I speak from experience here, many women enjoy horror as well. But unlike our male counterparts, we women are generally more piqued by our feelings - lured in by atmosphere - by emotional appeal, spooky tension, suspense, and an eeriness of mood. Give us an old Gothic house in the country with a creepy ghost or two, a vampire, or werewolf - a witch in the woods... An thank you sir for your kind offer of protection, but I'll let you in on a little secret: We know it's not real.
- Bungee Jumpers
There is speculation that people who enjoy horror entertainment are adrenaline junkies, because that rush of dopamine, endorphins, and adrenaline whips them into a euphoric high.
They (the all-knowing They) say that lovers of horror entertainment tend to embrace schadenfreude. They say we can lack empathy and are likely to be desensitized to human suffering. They say we are prone to display more aggressive behaviors. As with any society, perhaps there are some people who fit this mold, but I, for one, take exception to these generalizations. I am more inclined to believe that horror simply allows us the opportunity to get in touch with our primal instinctive fears in a passive manner.
No doubt about it, we do get the rush. But are all horror fans adrenaline junkies? I have no desire to jump out of an airplane. I've ridden a few roller coasters - don't ever want to do that again. Heck, I'm even terrified of motion theaters! Yet I still like scary books and movies.
I doubt there are any pat answers as to why some people enjoy horror and others do not. When we watch a movie or read a book, no matter how deeply we get into it, in the back of our brains, we know it's not real. We may jump and shriek, our hearts pounding as we wander through the haunted castle at Halloween, but we know it's all just terrible fun, put on for our entertainment, no matter how real it appears. We experience our fear in a controlled environment, or through aesthetic distance. Our minds know that the terror is not life-threatening, yet it breaks the routine of our daily drudgery and puts us back into an archetypal flight or fight frame of mind. In this way, we can get that rush without fear of bodily harm. (Though this does little to explain my own terror of motion theater!)
- Monsters in the Closet
Morbid curiosity has always plagued mankind. Why else do we slow down and gawk when we pass by a tragically horrific highway accident? We dread the unknown. We are fascinated with death.
Often, the supernatural is the only answer available to explain that which has no answer. Ghouls, zombies, vampires, and angels are a way to imagine life after death or eternal being. Monsters from around the globe may vary from culture to culture, yet their underlying motives all stem from the same fears of death and the unknown within humanity's shared consciousness.
From the elysian fields to the depths of the nether realms, the gods and demons of our prehistoric ancestors were born from campfire tales, for fear helps bind people together, giving them a common goal. It can build group unity, or control and modify behaviors. Consider the legends of St. Nicholas and Krampus as a way to get children to behave. Fear can be a powerful motivator, for often it is not necessary the desire to do good which keeps people in line - it is the fear of shame, going to prison, or spending eternity in hell.
The ghoul who rises from the grave. The thing which crawls out of the swamp. The creak of a floorboard inside our empty house - these are the things nightmares are made of. By confronting our fears through the safety of invented terror, often we can better face the true terrors of our daily lives. Perhaps my irrational childhood fear of spiders was overcome through the stories of terror I began to devour, which somehow helped spark the part of my brain that enables me to sift through what was real and what was imaginary. In this respect, I'd venture to say that those who enjoy horror entertainment on a regular basis are probably better able to deal with the true terrors of real life. But I'm not certain that They would agree.
Whether our stories stem from angels or demons, our fear of what awaits beyond life captures our imagination and attempts to make sense of the unknown. It is the darkness and demons which spawn our tales of terror as horror addresses our deepest fears to whisk us away on a psychological roller coaster ride. And when we get off, we can stand back and proudly declare, "Woo-hoo! I survived!"
About the author:
In a subtle fusion fo fantasy and realism, with an undercurrent of social critique, L.F. Falconer's mixed green fiction is consistently praised as "unique," "captivating," and "beautifully written." Falconer is a member of Higher Sierra Writers of Reno, Nevada, and the Churchill Arts Council in Fallon, Nevada. Her works have garnered awards in both the USA and the UK. A native of Fallon, Nevada, she and her husband are avid rock-hounds who enjoy exploring the desert backroads, mountains, and mining camps. She likes to fill her spare time lolling lazily about with her two senior dogs, allowing her imagination to soar. Find her books online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Outskirts Press.