I have a vivid memory of being seven or eight years old and going to a video store (remember those?). At that time, I was generally privy to walk away with a rental of the fairytale or Olsen sisters variety. However, I would do a lap or two around the store first, fascinated by the imagery on the covers. Comedy. Romance. Sci-Fi. I would slow my pace when I reached Horror, sheepishly looking around as though waiting to be told to back-away. No one ever did, though, so I would inevitably find myself lingering longer in this aisle, memorizing the weird titles and freaky imagery.
I still remember the feeling I had in that movie aisle, my pounding heart, my racing mind imagining the narratives behind the covers and semi-vague synopses. It was excitement and curiosity tinged with the macabre fascination that these movies contained an experience that I wasn’t so sure I was ready for.
Like with many things that scare us, I found that horror gave me sense of bliss that seemed entirely antithetical to the very notion of its existence: in a way, I felt most alive while having the living bejeesus scared out of me.
People receive adrenaline rushes when they go on a rollercoaster or go skydiving (as an example). However, the type of adrenaline rushes we experience vary. We experience adrenaline after hearing a joke that makes us laugh, or when presenting a project we’re nervous about, or after being told news that makes us excited. The same is true for fear: it’s a feeling that, when in the right type of environment, can be equally euphoric.
When we’re scared, our bodies enter their fight-or-response state and our non-essential functions go quiet leaving ample room for energy and adrenaline. When in a genuinely dangerous situation, this numbness coats anything that doesn’t pertain to survival, giving us a pain-free and natural high that puts us in our best-possible position for survival. However, when we’re in a controlled setting, we enter a “safe space”. The result is the bodily freedom to enjoy the energy rush with the understanding that the environment and characters do not actually pose a threat to our group.
Horror stories are built on set-up, set-up, jump scare. Comedies, similarly, rely on a set-up, set-up, joke framework.
I didn’t know that I loved horror until I was 13 and attended Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights in Orlando, Florida. Up until that point, I’d assumed that horror was something I wouldn’t enjoy. I signed up with my school to go to HHN on a whim. It was that same instinct that pushed me to try roller coasters that frightened me.
I spent two weeks entrenched in anxiety, and entered the event with the attitude that this was a one-time thing to see what all the hype was about. Needless to say, that evening changed my life. I left still riding the high of having had ultra-realistic monsters and ghouls scream at me in my face for four or five hours, and having loved it. Where has this sensation been my whole life?
That being said, something interesting I’ve learned over the years is that experiential horror presents a unique anomaly that many other mediums of horror (books, movies, TV, video games, etc.) don’t have: they appeal to non-horror fans, as well.
I attend Haunted Houses and Haunted Mazes with groups of friends I can’t convince to sit down and watch a horror movie with me. Just like me, they’re laughing and shrieking at the jumpscares as they marvel at the detail and costumes, and we make plans to attend the following year before we’ve even left the event. And yet, these people do not at all claim to be horror fans. Why does immersive entertainment appeal to audiences that horror movies do not?
In general, fear brings people together. Horror is a legitimate group experience that bonds you with those who experience it alongside you, allowing us to feel that we’ve “survived” something together. However, experiences such as immersive horror tend to attract more than just the core group of horror fanatics, which one most almost certainly finds to be opposite of expectation. Why is that?
In-person horror experiences, such as immersive theater, haunted houses, or virtual reality experiences, allow you something that movies, TV shows, and books do not: autonomy. This can be a double-edged sword: autonomy means the option of making mistakes, such as in video games. However, many experiential horror experiences fix that user anxiety, even ones that allow you to make “choices”.
We are in perfectly controlled chaos when in these experiences.
To best understand any society or decade, turn to the horror experiences that were created during that time. The effects of events ranging from war, economic crisis, social unrest, and even progress trigger this particular genre. After all: the above types of events don’t have a face or a body: they’re an idea we fear without the substance of a physical form. Horror gives these invisible enemies identities that we can more-easily visualize and put into the context of our everyday lives.
For example, nuclear war gave birth to ginormous monster tropes in the 50s that confronted our societal fear of destruction larger than our comprehension. That same decade brought the McCarthy trials which inspired the fear that the enemy “looks and acts like us” in films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The 70s focused on the destruction of American ideals and the “American family” with films such as Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The fear of terrorism during post 9/11 saw a rise in movies focusing narratives on easily spreadable viruses. It turns this, this was just a non-metaphorical prediction.
The same is true for any society that provides the same genre of content. Japanese horror, for example, focused heavily on technology as part of modern cinema to display the underlying belief that technology in the modern world doesn’t protect anyone from spirits, or yokai. Many Asian ghost stories are also steeped in folklore, often reimagining a classic spirit in modern-day settings.
All humans have a darker side. In fact, the argument can be made that it’s interwoven into our very fabric os existence. We’ve been telling ghost stories for as long as humankind could put words to the fears that they were experiencing.
Horror is so much more than a genre. It’s us. It’s me, you, and the rest of the collective consciousness of the universe that frequently seeks to make sense of what scares us, and why. More so, in tackling these questions, we’re removing the masks that our boogeymen wear to uncover the truth of our own fears and self-expectations. It’s about catharsis.
Furthermore…it’s fun to be chaotic. To tell scary stories. To challenge our own fears for the opportunity to conquer them and better understand the psyche of the culture around us.
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