I originally wrote a version of this piece for the Savage Insider eMagazine back in 2011, and it was published in the January 2012 issue. Given some of my upcoming horror fiction in 2017, I thought I would share this article again (with a few update-changes). It discusses why we horror fans like to be scared.
My childhood was twisted.
Really, there’s no other way to put it.
I grew-up in a house where horror movies were part of the normal entertainment routine. My parents had a vast collection, and we kids watched it all with them. Movies like Evil Dead, Friday the 13th, The Exorcist, The Manitou, A Nightmare on Elm Street, It’s Alive, Dawn of the Dead, Phantasm, and many others. Not to say that was all they owned, as they were also science fiction and special effects buffs (with my father trained in special effects), but horror films played a huge role.
The fright fest, however, did not end when the credits rolled. Nope, not in my family.
My father loved to scare us kids, and we never knew when it was coming. There was a night when I was about 10 years old or so, and it was time to go to bed. I walked into my room and was about to climb into bed, when suddenly my door slammed and a figure standing behind it yelled: “Booooyyyyyy!” just like the Tall Man.
A few seconds later, there came a resounding CRACK! as my near super-human leap of fear sent me crashing onto the bed, splintering one of the wooden beams in the box-spring mattress.
Looking back, well— at least that little stunt cost the old man money for a new mattress in the end. Served him right.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, however, as the saying goes. When my eldest son was roughly 11 years old, I got him just as good as my father had gotten me.
It was late at night on a weekend, and we had let him and his best friend (who was staying the night) watch The Ring on DVD. One of the special features on the disc is that you could view the video that the characters all saw within the movie, which then started the downward spiral where you’d have a dead girl hunting you down— a dead girl who can step out of the freaking television to get you!
Anyway, we had two separate phone lines in the house at the time. I had an idea. I was about to become my father.
While they were watching the special feature with Anna Lunsford (who was in on it) I feigned going to bed. I went to another floor of the house and picked up the other phone line. Using that star-whatever code you can put in to block the number of the incoming call on the ID, I called the line in the living room. When the machine picked up, mere seconds after they’d finished watching the bonus video, I disguised my voice and told them that they had seven days.
As predicted, they freaked out. By the time the gag was done, they were panicked that she was coming. I got them good, and my son looks back on the event with fond humor (and mild cursing in my direction). As do I with my father.
But why is that? Why is it so many of us flock to horror films? Whether it is the gore of something like Friday the 13th, or the current generation Hostel or Saw franchises— what is it that appeals to us, which drives us to voluntarily go out and get scared?
Keep in mind that I am not a psychologist. My own take on it is colored both by my personal experiences and the writings of professionals in the field. While horror films are not for everyone (my ex-wife will never watch them), for the movie-goer that helps make the things into block-busters, one point is for sure: people like us love to be scared!
The pulse quickens.
The heart rate increases.
The adrenaline pumps.
Humans by their very nature are adrenaline junkies in one form or another. For some, the thrill is in jumping out of airplanes (and hoping the parachute opens–no thank you), or bungee jumping (you can keep that one, too), or car racing, or any of a wide variety of activities. For others, though they might not realize it, it’s horror films. The brain is still unable to actually differentiate between what is on the screen and what is real. Sure, we are telling ourselves it’s just a movie and, consciously and intellectually, we know this as a fact. In the deeper recesses of our brain, it’s a different story. As far as that part of us is concerned, there is absolutely no difference between watching a machete-wielding murderer chase a hapless victim through the woods, and actually being chased by one. So, the brain reacts, and the body reacts. And it’s that accelerated biological function, brought about by a deep and internal sense of danger, that mixes with our conscious mind and brings us the enjoyment of the film.
That’s what the experts claim, anyway. So, I’m going to take a look at it from some personal and family experiences and see if it holds up.
My eldest son and his best friend had recently watched Buried (Ryan Reynolds) on DVD. Both of them are claustrophobic. They watched the film in a darkened, spacious room and knew going into it that not only was it not real, but that it contained one of their favorite actors.
During the film, both of them began to react. Even though they knew the fiction of it, and that Ryan Reynolds would be appearing in the next film on his plate, their heart rates increased, they started sweating at certain points, and their anxiety levels rose. Several times, they had to pause the movie, leave the room, and step outside of the house entirely.
See, if the experts are right, the deeper portions of their brain were unable to tell the difference between Ryan Reynolds being trapped in the coffin/box, and the two of them being trapped themselves. As a result, they reacted to the predicament of the main character on a very personal level. This actually crossed a line between enjoying the sensation of being scared, and not being able to withstand the feeling. Although they finished the film after several breaks, they refused to ever watch it again.
The same is true on a more limited level. Ever watch someone in a horror film get sliced a certain way and cringe, not from the gore that is about to happen, but from the simulated pain you can almost feel?
For me, drowning is a huge thing. I don’t like water coming down over my head and face, and have to be careful in the shower in how I do it. I’ve freaked out at water parks when riding down the tunnels on a round tube, getting spun around or going down backward, and having water poured on me from one of the falls without knowing it was coming. There was a scene in a Saw film where the character’s head was encased in a water-filled glass box. He had to use a pen to give himself a tracheotomy to survive. I had a lot of trouble with that scene, as a part of me felt like it was about to drown. My pulse quickened, my anxiety levels rose.
Looks like the theory holds.
Studies have shown that horror films, by the very attributes mentioned above, can also play a part in the whole dating ritual we all dance through. According to those studies, women find men that can handle a horror film more attractive, while men find women that cringe and jump (the Damsel in Distress syndrome) more attractive. I don’t know how true that particular theory is, so I’ll leave that to you to individually decide. Horror films rarely scare Anna, and I find her attractive just fine.
Horror films are also more popular in the younger audience than the older one, according to studies. The idea behind those studies is the old “Rite of Passage” that humans used to implement in tribal times, although that has pretty much disappeared in modern society. Accordingly, we still have a programmed need to go through the ritual from childhood to adulthood, at least in the male population. While back in other times, such rites typically involved danger, fortitude, and bravery, the study says that in the modern day the horror film has taken that burden.
Young men flock to them to be scared, to go through the emotional responses, and to be able to walk away and brag that they saw horror movie X and weren’t all that frightened. Deep down, experiencing the responses as described earlier takes the place of the time-honored rites, and provides a sense of moving forward overall. The “Rite of Passage” study further claims that as the reason older men don’t view as much horror as they used to because they have moved past that Rite of Passage time in life, and just don’t receive the same satisfaction.
Again, does that theory hold water? I don’t know. I’m 43 years old, though, and while I watch horror movies with Anna, or view them when in need of research or inspiration, I honestly don’t flock to them the way I used to. There are a lot of horror films in the past couple of years I have yet to see.
Stephen King once said that the key to good horror is to take the fears of the present day and exaggerate them. Make the reader/audience feel an increased level of anxiety due to the everyday connection they emotionally and mentally create to the material. He claimed that when preying on present fears, the connection was automatic and beyond the scope of the audience to control.
I’d say that theory holds a degree of truth, even if I went no further than some of the elements King uses in his works of a particular era. But let’s look at some other popular themes and when they popped up in horror in recent decades. Keep in mind, this is going to be a brief look, and I encourage any horror fan out there to take a deeper look on your own, colored by your own perceptions and opinions of the world and horror.
A caution parents have even today on checking their child’s Halloween candy was an even more prominent concern in the 1970s, when cases of people tampering with the candy they were giving out was in the headlines. Halloween took on a new visage— one of fear and predatory practices over the fun of dressing up and getting free sugar. John Carpenter preyed on that extremely well in his film Halloween, which not only contained a scene of a child at the hospital thanks to a razor blade in his candy, but also Michael Myers being the psychotic predator dressed in a mask, mixing in almost flawlessly with the rituals of the night. It hit the viewers on a deeper level, and provided that emotional and mental connection with what was already happening to transform the very nature of the holiday. And it was a commercial success.
In the 1980s, the fear of serial killers was still a very prominent thing, especially with media coverage spilling over from the 1970s. It was the perfect time for not only Thomas Harris to pen both Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, but for Hollywood to begin production on the film version of Silence of the Lambs that would be released in 1991. People flocked to the film, not only for the cast and the superb acting, but also for the fact that it preyed upon very real fears of the times. The person that moved in next door could be a serial killer, and your family the next victim. The person you met at the bar for a night of fun could be your last experience. Silence of the Lambs was another commercial success.
How many films preyed on the fears of a nuclear holocaust in the 1980s?
Look at the Saw films. When stripped down, they show us how much any of us fail to truly live and care about those around us. We encounter people all the time, but how many of us actually see them or care to? How many of us treat others only as background material, walk-on extras in the movie of our lives— there and gone, and discarded for those on the next set piece? When was the last time we stopped to help someone broken down on the side of the highway? How often did we just look, think poor sucker, and press the gas to get to whatever unimportant event we were on our way toward? The last time we heard of someone suffering and gave the mechanical I’m sorry, how many actually meant those words? More than likely, a vast majority felt nothing and simply gave it as an automatic motion, a bit of expected behavior and nothing more.
Sounds cynical concerning my fellow humans, but when you stop to think about it— really turn it over and examine it— it’s truer than we would care to admit.
That is exactly what Jigsaw battles against in the last days of his life, as the cancer eats away at his brain. Those of us that simply go through the motions of being alive, of being human, but take that fantastic gift for granted. If we were to truly and deeply examine ourselves, we’d no doubt find that we are all worthy of being his victims for a variety of reasons. It’s an unpleasant thought, really, to realize that we are no better than the victims in the film that we shake our heads at and tell ourselves they deserve what they are getting from him.
Good horror should make us examine ourselves, whether we realize it or not. It should, not only through all of the factors already mentioned, strip us down and bring us screaming naked before the mirror. It should challenge our preconceived notions of being decent people— remove the masks we’ve come to wear and show us our true visage.
Let’s also take The Mist as an example. In that story, we have a catastrophe beyond our control invade the lives of the main characters. A strange mist rolls into a New England town and brings within it horrors generally unseen— the thing that rips you apart deep within the fog, the tentacle that reaches through the door to drag you to your death, creatures of unknown origin and ability. What’s worse, the story examines the very basic notions of human behavior. Trapped within the supermarket, it takes no time at all for personalities and religious beliefs to clash, causing a localized rift between the survivors that mirrors one of the greater problems we all face. People grow intolerant of each other fairly quickly, and form their own sub-groups to simply escape and survive, rule the masses, or bring into existence some other agenda. Naturally, too, the cause of the entire series of events was the federal government and its desire to harness dangerous technology without the proper wisdom or precautions.
In quick succession, Stephen King hits home on many prevalent fears concerning our government and us. As predicted, we form an immediate connection to it and are drawn in.
The list goes on, and can fill another article entirely. But it does seem to reinforce the notion of preying upon present-day fears increases the connection to horror stories. Something that, according to a host of television specials, articles, and interviews, holds true for the resurgence of the zombie apocalypse genre.
Like the generations that lived under the new fears of atomic and nuclear catastrophes that launched their own brand of horror films and literature, we live under our own fears of both biological weapons and terrorism. The events of September 11, 2001 changed the American psyche on a deep level, as no longer was the enemy— which could remain unseen and mingle with society until the moment came to strike— simply a member of a foreign nation’s culture. They were now the bogeymen living next door, working at local businesses, or whose children attended school with our own. Suddenly, far too many Americans began seeing danger wherever members of a certain nationality existed. They were everywhere and nowhere. Even worse, they could, in many cases, through carefully constructed international networks, access many of the same weapons our own government could use— including biological weapons.
Add to this the popular opinion that the federal government is bloated, lazy, inept, and no longer able to properly serve or protect its citizens, and you have the mixture for a time of fear unlike any that has come along in almost 70 years.
Whether the above is true to any degree that could harm us is irrelevant to this piece. What matters is that the fear is there. According to many sources, and many authors of zombie fiction, that fear has been the driving catalyst in a resurgence. I tend to agree.
More so than Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, or even Jigsaw, the zombies represent the sum total of society’s present fears and concerns, all wrapped in a neat, decomposing package.
The outbreak of a zombie apocalypse (taking Romero’s return probe from Venus aside) is typically some sort of biological weapon gone wrong, or an unknown biological source. It strikes with impunity either in a certain geographical area (as in City of the Dead, by Brian Keene) or worldwide as is more typical.
Next, the first stages of the outbreak typically involve an unknown quantity of what is going on, or how it is spread. That lack of knowledge in how the infection leads to a rapid spread of the problem as hospitals become overburdened, and then walking graveyards. Meanwhile, the military and government are pretty much toppled in short form as the infection strikes within their very walls and ranks, all but eliminating the citizen’s main form of protection and salvation.
From there, the common elements and technological crutches that we have become so reliant upon fall, leaving the pockets of survivors scrounging for a living not only against millions of infected zombies, but also with a realization that many of them do not even possess the basic survival skills for a world without ready-made meals and store-bought goods.
The survivors now come to the realization that they lack even the most basic ability to feed and provide for themselves, never mind their loved ones and children. Starvation and illness become serious threats of death, not to mention the other survivors in a similar position that will kill another person for their supplies. Economic and social classes break down, and the law of the land is what you can do whatever is necessary to stay alive.
All in all, under the mask of cool zombies and interesting characters, we have our fears of an unknown enemy (whatever agent caused the outbreak), danger being the person next to you (infection), an ineffective government (militaries and governments fall quickly), and having to fend for ourselves in a world turned completely against us, with danger possibly lurking in the survivor camp just over the hill. A common cold becomes a major threat, and even the smallest cut or animal bite could become a very dangerous medical infection.
In a world of economic and governmental fears, of terrorism in your own backyard, and in an uncertain future that could undergo a paradigm shift, the zombie apocalypse genre does a fantastic job of bringing all of that together to both appeal and frighten us on deeper levels.
And we cling to it, hungry for that sensation, starving for the need to experience the emotional and mental connection through the relative safety of our television screen or eReader. Desiring the increased pulse and heightened anxiety brought about by the recesses of our mind as we attempt to face our fear and come to grips with it.
It’s the appeal of horror, and why fans of the genre are drawn to being happily scared— and why my son and I look back on our respective in-family horror gags with a particular fondness.