There is a debate among scholars, psychoanalysts, philosophers, and spectators as to the allure of horror. Generally speaking theories include manifesting repressed feelings, seeking to see others punished / survive, sensation seeking, purging of emotions, and as an outlet for societal ills.[i] In an attempt to weigh in on this discussion I argue that the allure of horror films is largely linked to the acceptance of the darkness in our hearts. It is about the gratification of letting your socially uncomfortable traits frolic amongst the others for 90 minutes. [ii] While this may seem dangerously close to the catharsis school of thought, I diverge by adding a few other mechanisms. For one, I don’t feel as if we need to be purged of these feelings that society deems undesirable. Furthermore, I believe there are three overarching components to the enticement of horror films: 1) engagement in the illicit; 2) the comprehensive, visceral body sensations; 3) and most importantly, the admission that we all have a dark side.
Let’s face it, horror films give us bragging rights. The more you go to, the fewer times you jump, the tougher you appear. They allow us to defy the norms defined by our parents and politicians. They encourage us to sneak out of bed, to creep downstairs and turn on USA Up All Night regardless of consequence. And finally, they make your girlfriends scoot into the crook of your arm, just a little tighter. For 90 minutes we all get to be the James Dean of the theater.[iii]
Closely tied to this endurance of danger, is the all-inclusive bodily experience. Who needs 3-D IMAX theaters when you have horror? This genre appeals to us on our most animalistic levels. Your heart races, you sweat, your mind starts to problem solve, you jump and recoil with the sights and sounds on the screen. We participate in the thrill of the chase, our survival skills kick in and primitive drives manifest. Frequently it is the primal drives of sex and aggression that we hide behind a socially acceptable mask. Horror films let us take off the mask and revel in the glow. One of the most reasonable and lasting contributions that Sigmund Freud gave us were Eros (the drive to seek pleasure) and Thanatos (the death drive). These primal drives are hardwired in our animal hindbrain (aka the Reptilian Brain). Eros and Thanatos are as much a part of us as respiration. Beyond Freud, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs argues that physiological needs (primal drives) must be met if people are to move beyond to feelings of safety, love, and esteem. The primal drives to procreate, thrive, and survive (at the expense of others at times) dance together in horror films. I am sure the physiological changes that occur during some horror films might mirror endorphins from sex, roller coasters, or skydiving. All these things that make people feel alive, overwhelmed, and exhilarated all link to our primal drives of life, procreating, and survival.
Dr. Spencer Reid: Do you wanna know why horror movies are so successful?
Derek Morgan: Why is that, genius?
Dr. Spencer Reid: They prey on our instinctual need to survive. In tribal days, a woman’s scream would signal danger and the men would return from hunting to protect their pack. That’s why it’s always the women and not the men who fall victim to the bogeyman.
“The Stranger,” Criminal Minds (2011) [iv]
In “The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s” Robin Woods discusses societal repression and the concept of otherness. He astutely argues that the things which society represses are manifested through the Monster. Furthermore, the Monster serves as a conduit for society to re-establish order. Thus otherness is vanquished and repressive order is reinstated. A useful tool, Wood’s analysis shows how the Monster serves as a signpost of all that society represses. While he may have been limited by the scope of the article, Wood focuses on sexual repression and leaves out aggression. Whether it is through laws, religion, or parenting, society seeks to regulate manifestations of aggression. Road rage, bar fights, corporate life, and cyber bullying are a smidgen of the daily indicators of aggression across all walks of life. Through the lens of aggression, Wood’s thesis takes an interesting turn. If the unrestrained aggressive Monster represents that which we repress to reinstate normality, then how does it figure if the Monster is only vanquished through equal and opposite bouts of aggression. Essentially society must become the Monster in order to eliminate it. Therefore if normality was reinstated, it was accomplished by the repressive forces finally unleashing that which they seek to repress. One could argue that the difference between the two is in purpose versus seemingly purposeless aggression. But if the Monster is often sympathetic as Wood argues, then the film offers the audience some reason behind the Monster’s aggression, thus providing some purpose for its aggression.
Stephen King discusses horror, “… as lifting a trapdoor in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath. Why bother? Because it keeps them from getting out, man.”[v] Notice by lifting the trapdoor Stephen King bypasses the most highly functioning part of our evolved brain, the forebrain which regulates impulse control, judgment, empathy, and reasoning. He sees the allure of horror as tapping into the more primitive reptilian brain. Whereas I agree that horror taps into our primal roots, I believe the allure of horror is about reveling in our own darkness.
I argue that it is less about feeding your alligators or keeping them from getting out than it is about actually letting them out. King adds that “The potential lyncher is in almost all of us and every now and then, he has to be let loose to scream and roll around in the grass.”[vi] It is admitting your darkness like a sinner at confessional but without seeking repentance. It’s accepting your admittance into a small group of people who dare to crack through their fashioned exteriors and offer up their crazy. Think about it, there is a clear difference between how we portray ourselves and what really is. It’s the reason that most people cannot turn away from the twisted metal and burning flesh of a highway accident. It’s what makes some people laugh at Holocaust jokes and why a soccer mom cannot avoid the fact that she secretly has planned and mentally acted out the murder of several people between the beginning of her morning commute and the return to her pathetically redundant and banal home life. We all have the darkness and it is okay. When at a horror film you are amongst your own and there are many of us (and they are not just boys/men).
We are all little insane in our own ways. Some people obsessively line things up, some exact revenge over a lost parking spot, and others find enjoyment in observing the problems of others. On some level all of these things provide a level of comfort. Organizing things, regaining one’s “spot” in life, and reveling in the glory of being just beyond the grasp of danger reinforces status and omnipotence. In reality the veil of normality is thin and almost always just out of reach. Perhaps the world would be more comfortable if we released the alligators.
In American Horror Story: Freak Show, Edward Mordrake elicited stories of pain and regret from the freaks. Sanctuary is offered to those who admitted and accepted their darkest tales. The greatest transgression, punishable by death was the inability to admit what Mordrake calls the “blackness in their heart”. Only those who admit their darkness are permitted to live beyond the sword and reclaim their humanity/ self-actualization. Arguably AHS Freak Show stages the freaks as normal and broader society as the monstrous other. Society’s most horrific quality is its masking of its darker side. In order to demolish the Monster, the freaks must verbalize their darkness to reestablish order. Here AHS lifts up the biggest dingiest stone and asks all the grubs and worms under it to reclaim their place in the sun.
Edward Mordrake: “Thank you for your pains, dear lady. I’m sorry you had to relive any of this.” (AHS Season 4, Ep. 3: “Edward Mordrake Part 1”)
Edward Mordrake: “I have met many a craven killer, many a sniveling coward in my time, but every one of them could admit the blackness in their own hearts when the hour came. You have caused the demon to weep.” (AHS Season 4, Ep. 4: “Edward Mordrake Part 2”)[vii]
Horror films are a more socially acceptable outlet for people than snuff films, hard core porn, or even worse….admitting the truth about who we are, what we have done, and what we think about.[viii] They offer a little window that reveals the undercarriage of the sweet suburban façade of normality. In the absence of threats we tend to fill the voids with our own imaginations. Maybe that is why the monster under our beds is the scariest monster of all because our heads are filled with WAY worse things than anyone can put on the screen. Horror films simply offer a few of us the ability to remind the world that it is normal to have abnormalities. Horror films permit us to admit the darkness in our hearts without shame. Through that shamelessness comes fulfillment, which certainly speaks to the allure of horror films.
[i] For further reading on these theories see: http://web.calstatela.edu/faculty/sfischo/horrormoviesRev2.htm, http://filmmakeriq.com/lessons/the-psychology-of-scary-movies/, http://news.psu.edu/story/141312/2008/10/28/research/probing-question-why-do-people-scary-movies, http://www.academia.edu/7926417/Psychological_Appeal_Driving_the_Popularity_of_Ultra-Violent_Horror_Films
[ii] Wood, Robin. “American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s” argues that many people who go to horror films profess to going to them to laugh. If this is any indication of a collective and warped sense of humor, then perhaps our aggressiveness as a society is broader than we like to realize.
[iii] This moves beyond Noel Carroll’s argument in The Philosophy of Horror where he sees the violations within the film being alluring. I argue that the violations within the film as well as seeing the film add to the experience.
[v] King, Stephen. Why We Crave Horror Movies
[vi] King, Stephen. Why We Crave Horror Movies
[viii] In fact if you read “Understanding the Popular Appeal of Horror Cinema” by Glenn D. Walters you will see that in order for horror films to be effective, they have to be unreal. This is what distinguishes between deviant and normal participation in viewership. Though I argue we all have some darker side to ourselves that we should admit to find peace, I do not suggest that it is deviant or dangerous thoughts/behaviors.