Thursday, January 24, 2008

Horror: What scares us and why do we like it so much?

It seems to me that many people never get a chance to attend as many conventions as they like -- if any. So I thought I'd bring a convention to everyone. One of the panels I participated in at Confusion 2008, along with Suzanne Church, was on the topic of horror and what scares us.

This seems like a good place to pose the question, and look for a few answers. What is it that scares us in horror? Are there particular things? Are people scared by horror fiction any longer? What is the attraction to horror? Is it being scared or is it something else? Do we need gore or some visceral element to make horror horrifying?

I could go on with the questions, but these seem like a good starting point. I'll try to round up a group of panelists, but everyone should consider themselves panelists and offer answers or pose questions.


The Acrobatic Flea said...

A simple answer would be: being in a situation where you had no control or influence over what was going on e.g. where your fate is taken out of your hands.

Good literature can still give you that sensation if it allows you to emphathise with the protagonist.

JonathanMaberry said...

Being frightened is a funny thing. I've been active as a student and teacher of jujutsu for 45 years now, I worked as a bouncer and a bodyguard, and I've been in a lot of serious confrontations. So...physical injury doesn't scare me. In my novels and other writings I've even worked out reasonable fight strategies against supernatural criters ranging from vampires to zombies.

So...what does scare me?

No matter how tough a person is there are a thousand ways in which harm can come at those you love. Disease is truly terrifying, whether on the level of a global pandemic or the insidious subtlety of cancer. For me, the scariest stories are ones where the attacker is something no fist or knife or bullet can stop.

Since I also love a thrill, I read just about everything I can find in which some kind of disease or plague is the predator. My first exposure to that kind of horrific storytelling was when Richard Matheson gave me a copy of I AM LEGEND for my 14th birthday. Since then I’ve devoured everything related to the topic: King’s THE STAND, McCammon’s SWAN SONG, and all of the related stuff involving zombies, plagues of madness.

Yeah...that stuff scares me. And conversely it intrigues me because each of those stories deals with heroic attempts to stop and/or control the spread of the pathogen. It pits the thinking hero against an unthinking plague, and to me that makes for compelling reading.

-Jonathan Maberry
Bram Stoker Award-winning author of
And coming in 2008: BAD MOON RISING and
ZOMBIE CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead

NM said...

I would advise against trying to determine what scares us based on "horror fiction" which, despite the name and the common descriptive heuristic of "horror is comprised of those texts that frighten" only because fiction sales and publications are so overdetermined by the marketplace and its actors.

As far as what scares us, same as it ever was: the mental image or perception of that which appeared to be human, but that is not. This can include a ghost or a monster outside the human experience, or a former human whose intenstines are now leaking out of his or her stomach.

Coincidentally, I was watching an old episode of the Twilight Zone the other day, and it involved one character explaining to another that wax museums were no longer scary after the concentration camps. We heard much the same about "horror fiction" after 9/11 (much less awful than the Holocaust, as awful as it was). Humans can get used to almost anything, it seems, but they also forget almost everything. In the end, anything that hits that uncanny chord will frighten.

If there's not many of these scares in horror fiction, it is generally because most horror today is really just a thriller with a monster of some sort.

Charles Gramlich said...

Like Jonathan, disease is the biggest terror in my life. It's not death I fear so much as it is the possible agony of getting there, and the loss of my strength and abilities.

Course, I'm not very fond of ghosts, demons and the dark either.

Suzanne said...

Loss of control scares us. As the others have said, that can include having a disease ravage your body while it puts you through agony that you have no ability to fight.

Supernatural creatures frighten me, particularly religious ones. It's ironic, because I'm not a religious person, yet the idea of demons or Satan coming down to torture me for a few weeks before they send me to hell for eternal damnation scares the bejeebers out of me.

I also find watching/anticipating children placed in harm's way, particularly my own children, is enough to terrify me. As a mother, I'm amazed at the strength parents find to endure something as common as a trip to the ER with your child. I can't imagine the agony of watching a child die of something like cancer. That is true horror.

Steve Buchheit said...

I have to agree it's the loss of control that instills the most fear. That's a quintessentially an American thing. We are, as we've all been told, masters of our own destiny. So when that control is removed, our world goes all wrong very fast.

There was a panel I attended a long time ago where they were dissecting the difference between Horror and Dark Fantasy. The basic conclusion was with DF, there is hope and the very real chance that hope will pay out. With Horror, no matter what you do (when in doubt, pull all the wires, as Dr. Who said), the Grue is gonna get you in the end. It's the roller-coaster theory of literature. Roller-coasters scare people because there is no steering wheel or user controlled braking.

Other than that, there is the language, the pacing, the reveal, the psychological play and the hooks into the archetypal weaknesses that work very well.

Jeff Edwards said...

Coincidentally, I am reading Stephen King's DANSE MACABRE this week; it was interesting to see the responses above and to reflect on how King addressed them. Comments on loss of control could be a kind of "regression" to childhood when we depended on others to take care of us. Comments on disease could be the fear of the "bad death" (as opposed to the peaceful, "dying in your sleep" style of expiration). King suggests that "fear of the dark" is one of our basest fears. He also attempts to describe various levels of fright with terms like terror, horror and revulsion.


MKeaton said...

I would have to disagree with the loss of control as the main fear simply because it is merely a facet of the larger, deeper theme the fear of the unknown. Knowledge is necessary for control. That doesn't appear obvious on the surface but, consider that a certian degree of understanding is necessary to even know where to begin to try to control a situation. A similar fear would be the paralysis of not knowing in what manner to control a situation (that is, to be able to influence what is occuring but not knowing what to do without making things worse). With psycological horror, the surface fear is losing control of oneself but even that is based on the underlying assumption that there is an unknown element within the mind and that it is probably malevolent (which takes us back to the fear of the unknown again). Then again, we may be talking about semantics--that one man's unknown is another man's control--but I do lean toward thinking that knowledge is more visceral, more primal than control.


Sean M Davis said...

I think I have to agree with MKeaton, in that what scares us about horror is the "unknown" element. Science has explained away alot of what scares us, leaving us with scientific unknowns, for example disease. We know what they are,but not WHY they are.
I think that Suzanne also touched on something that resonates within all of us. Not necessarily an afterlife in the religious sense, but the idea of "beyond". We live, on average, about seventy five years, and then its kaputzky. Obviously, there is something more to us than flesh. Like Descartes said. So the idea of what happens to us after we die can be horrifying. Personally what perplexes me is "If we do go somewhere after we die, Heaven, Valhalla, Sheoul, whatever, where were we before we lived?"
So ture horror, to me, would be threats to our souls.
But there are a lot of things that I find fundamentally creepy, such as large open empty dark spaces, unexplained(able) sounds at night and clowns.
And plenty of other things scare me, but only in a transitory way. Bees scare me, but once I get stung, it's over with. But if some demon bee came along whose sting caused me to mutate and become monster enough to kill, but still human enough to care, that would horrify me.

A. A. Attanasio said...

Horror is a confrontation with truth. Life’s wrenching, overwhelming and exhausting tragedy defeats our assertion that we are more than mere things. Without persistent repression of this truth, human existence would be unbearable. We find horrifying, in life and in fiction, anything that punctures our denial of the truth, anything that forces confrontation with the brutal fact of our mortality, our unconquerable ignorance or the truly frightening absurdity of our moral claims in a universe of violence and darkness, vast and secret beyond all imagining. Why do we like horror? Because one must face the truth to find meaning. Life’s meaning is mediated by horror. And the treasure of horror is the discovery of meaning.

John Goodrich said...

You're going to be at NECON? Frikkin Awesome!

Sorry, no fear-related thoughts.

Vwriter said...

Here's my take on it, confirmed by a short conversation with my maniacal cat:

At a core level, what scares (horrifies) us are both ourselves and other people, both those that we know and those we have not yet met. All of the monsters in horror novels are really ourselves or others projected outward and given power to enact those forbidden rages and malevolent urges including everything from sexual predation to physical violence to enslavement. A friend of mine says that we fear the inhumanity within us, but the truth is that we fear the humanity within us and that lurks in the hearts of others. A vampire can be terrifying, but it is the human intent projected into the vampire that is horrifying. It is the same with all monsters that transcend terror and enter the realm of terror. Their worst core is human. We anthroporphize or worst disasters and give them human name. Wild, dark, and foreboding woods whisper and taunt us. It is, again, the projected humanity that terrifies us. We know the "evil" within us and it is the stuff of horror. Why is that a well done zombie is more horrifying than a tiger. Both share the same intent to mutilate, murder, and masticate us, but that small spark of humanity within the zombie recognizes the same spark within us and, with human intent, shambles after us. A tiger is only terrifying. A zombie has the potential to be horrifying. consider Cujo. Mad dogs are terrifying. The spark of human "evil" projected into the dog made it horrifying. There is no true "evil" that we have found anywhere except within ourselves.

Lovecraft extrapolated various facets of human evil to his cosmogony. Alien beings with fantastic powers and to whom we are nothing more than insects are to be found in almost every country, in almost every era- be the Nazis or Haitian butchers. The projected imagery is that of overwhelming power coupled with human "evil."

Horror literature provides us with a vehicle to examine the true sources of our horror (ourselves and others) by providing elevating the contextual considerations. For example, we create monsters whose human evil are expanded to almost cartoon proportions so that we may distance ourselves from them. That achieved distance is the unique contribution of horror literature.
How does this technique provide us with a uniquely valuable avenue to approach and begin to deal with the issue of our own resident "evil" and why is it more effective than other venues? I think the answer is that in general we have a difficult time admitting to the universality of evil, and that other story platforms such as suspense and mystery are poor learning platforms for these matters, including, for example, The Silence ofthe Lambs. It is uncomfortable to us to dwell too long on Hannibal Lechter because he was, after all, human. The identification is too close to home and it makes the reader a bit too uncomfortable to be able to view the problem with the abstracted distance required to come to grips with the matter. These type of presentations cause us to reject the very lessons that they were intended to teach. If they are embodied in a monster, howevever, we stand a better chance to absorb the lesson because we are no longer both student and guilty party.

The Horror genre is best represent by those stories where human evil is projected and anthropormophized into "monsters" that can impact us, where we can be horrified with one part of humanity's nature without admitting that such a thing is occuring. Bit by bit we learn these lessons more safely than if they were taught by less effective genres. Even Cthulhu fits within these parameters- within out his monsterized human evil, where is the horror?

And I think now is the bright new era of horror or, as it is better called, dark fiction, because we are learning more about our very natures with each passing day that was learned during the whole of the middle ages. In other words, the more we learn about humanity, the more reason we have to be horrified.

Why do we enjoy it so much? I think that it's clearly defined duality resonates with our own dark and light sides. We live vicariously through both protagonist and antagonist at the same time.