Why Is Horror So Pleasurable To Human Nature?

Why Is Horror So Pleasurable To Human Nature?
© Credit: Khusen Rustamov - Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

Horror, especially on film or video, provokes strong responses. Self-appointed moral guardians are apt to condemn the genre without viewing it objectively, while media coverage routinely scapegoats “video nasties” in much-publicised cases of violence and murder. Critics otherwise benevolently disposed towards popular culture often view horror as the lowest of the low, and even liberal gentlefolk are suspicious about the motives and character failings of its consumers. Are they sick? Are they disturbed people indulging in nasty, perverse desires? Or have they merely become so jaded as to be addicted to ever increasing doses of violent excess? What such responses reflect, of course, is the bewilderment and affront that non-consumers feel when faced with such a singular taste. For, as John Brophy suggests in an illuminating if sweeping generalisation, the gratification of the contemporary horror film is based on tension, fear, anxiety, sadism and masochism — a disposition that is overall both tasteless and morbid.

Why would a “normal” person indulge in something like horror? It is both fascinating and puzzling that so many apparently quite normal people do appear to relish such experiences. Though we lack reliable data on the audiences for different forms of horror, no observer would deny that horror, literary and audiovisual, has proved attractive throughout the modern era and has been particularly prominent in the popular culture of the past two decades. So what is its appeal? Although scholars of different disciplinary persuasions have recently researched the genre at some length, none of them, however instructive in other respects, provides an entirely satisfactory answer to that question. In part the problem is empirical. These studies are unable to marshall any more than anecdotal evidence as to the composition and preferences of horror audiences and so are forced to build their arguments on what may be ill-founded speculations. However, this is by no means the only source of difficulty. A satisfactory answer is also hard to come by because we lack clarity and agreement on a satisfactory way of posing the explanatory question in the first place. When we ask “why horror?”, precisely what we are asking is far from clear.

Even at its simplest, the question has two distinct aspects, involving either or both of “what is it about people who like horror?” and “what is it about the horror that people like?” In the former, the main focus is on the distinctive characteristics of people (who like horror) and, though it often carries overtones to the effect that liking horror is a bit peculiar, it is in principle no different to asking what kind of people like musicals, thrillers or weepies. In effect, it leaves the question of what actually constitutes horror (or musicals or thrillers or weepies) to consumers themselves. They are seen as a self-selected group by virtue of their conjoint taste, and analysts seeking explanations suppose, therefore, that this group must share some distinguishable characteristic which underlies their singular predisposition.

In practice, however, many explanations of this kind crucially fail to discriminate consumers from non-consumers. Take, for example, the familiar “beast within” approaches that Joseph Grixti has so cogently documented. He traces their expression in the views of such popular horror writers as James John Herbert and Stephen Edwin King as well as in those academic perspectives which invoke catharsis as a key mechanism or claim that horror appeals to deep-seated, psychoanalytically intelligible repressed desires. Underlying such arguments, he says, is the belief “that human beings are rotten at the core,” whether by nature or nurture, and that horror resonates with this feature of the human condition. The genre serves as a channel releasing the bestiality concealed within its users. If the model is that of catharsis, then the process is deemed to be beneficial: a safety valve. If the model is one of articulation and legitimation, then the genre is conceived to encourage consumers in their own horrific behaviour. Either way, the attraction of horror derives from its appeal to the “beast” concealed within the superficially civilised human.

Whatever virtues and failings may be apparent in the detail of such arguments, they face an obvious problem as answers to the “why horror?” question. “Beast within” diagnoses are generally claimed applicable to all human beings — to be human, they suggest, is to contain the beast, whatever its specific causation. So it still remains to explain why in some cases this leads to a liking for horror, yet in others, it does not. If human beings have evolved in such a way as to control and constrain their animal nature, or if their infant experience leads to the repression of, say, incestuous desires, such characteristics cannot be used to explain the appeal of horror without supplementary hypotheses enabling us to distinguish consumers of horror from non-consumers. We may indeed like horror because it appeals to our unreconstructed animal nature — but if so, some of us must be more unreconstructed than others. And that simply repossess the question, though now in terms of the differential characteristics of the horror audience. Thus, even if “beast within” arguments are prima facie plausible, they do not really answer “what is it about people who like horror?” That requires a different kind of explanation.

Those addressing the second version of “why horror?” — “what is it about the horror that people like?” — also seek general explanations. They suppose that there is something quite distinctive about the appeal of horror, that this appeal requires special explanation, and that an adequate explanation will encompass the full range of horror forms. They ask, in effect, what is it that people-in-general like about horror-in-general. Of course, they fully recognise that popular though it may be, horror is not popular with everybody. The universality of their approach lies in the attempt to distinguish what it is about horror, as opposed to other forms of fiction, which appeals to those who consume it, supposing in the process that horror-in-general presents special problems of explanation over and above our customary accounts of the appeal of this or that fictional form. In a way, that is, they accept the common-sense view with which I began this discussion, that there is something rather peculiar about enjoying horror, and it is this peculiarity which requires special explanations distinguishing horror’s appeal from that of other forms of fiction.

In practice, of course, most commentators interweave claims based upon interpretations of what is distinctive about horror texts with claims about key features of the horror audience, even if, as we shall see, they weigh the two elements differently. Quite how they do so depends on the substance of the theoretical perspectives that they bring to bear, and in this context, there is an important difference of emphasis between those approaches which take their inspiration from the psychoanalytic tradition and those which do not. In what follows, therefore, I shall examine some of the recent literature with an eye to the contribution it makes to answering the question “why horror?,” beginning with those arguments which utilise psychoanalytic theory to comprehend horror texts, horror audiences or both. Note that my aim here is not to represent this work in its full richness, but to illuminate some general features of explanations of horror’s appeal.

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