Why Horror?

by Matthew Lowes

341px-Pedro_Américo_-_Visão_de_Hamlet_2Among the uninitiated, and even among those who enjoy a good horror story, many say the appeal is visceral, a thrill for the senses and the psyche. Stop there, however, and we may miss the more profound and relevant aspects of the genre. The question remains, why seek out these thrills? What attracts us to these dark and unsettling tales?

The deep roots of fiction lay in the ancient evolution of the human psyche, and in ongoing attempts to understand ourselves, the universe, and the phenomena of existence. Stories are a quest for meaning, and horror plays a vital role in the quest.

The horrific encounter challenges established structures of meaning in the psyche and in society. Horror comes like a prophet proclaiming the death of your god. Everything you believe is wrong, he says. And you are given this choice: You must welcome this prophet, making a place for him in your home, or you must devour him, making a feast of his living flesh. That is the power horror has over us, and its strength as a vehicle for stories.

Our fears are woven into the fabric of our beliefs and our identities. Horror tears it all apart, even if only temporarily, and forces us to reconstruct the psyche in new ways. Perhaps in doing so, we are getting closer to the truth. Perhaps it is catharsis, allowing us to purge dangerous and destructive fears. Perhaps it is an evolutionary process, by which we maintain the plasticity of the mind and the adaptability of the species, thus increasing our chances for survival.

Whatever the case, horror is part of a spiritual journey, a pilgrimage to the dark, unfathomable, and empty reaches of the soul. In that place, nothing is sacred, and no meaning endures unto itself. The machinations of our hopes and our comforts are exposed and disassembled before our eyes. We cannot stand in such a place and not be affected. We cannot pass through it and not be changed. Horror is a reminder that in the end, one way or another, we will face our fears. And when we do, we will be … transformed.

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12 thoughts on “Why Horror?

  1. This post reminds me of the tower card in the Tarot, which is exactly about the destruction of a false reality, which can feel “horrible” but opens us to the possibility of a new way of viewing ourselves and the world, just as you said. Great post…

  2. “Horror comes like a prophet proclaiming the death of your god.” Love that! I agree that horror leads us to ask what will become of us if all we believe and rely on is false. It’s often uncomfortable, but always rewarding.

    • Visão de Hamlet (1893) by Pedro Americo, a Brazilian painter.

      It combines “Alas, poor Yorick …” with the Ghost of Hamlet’s father:

      I am thy father’s spirit,
      Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
      And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,
      Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
      Are burnt and purg’d away. But that I am forbid
      To tell the secrets of my prison house,
      I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
      Would harrow up thy soul …

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