As an author whose speculative fiction books either contain elements of horror, or are straight up Horror, Dark Fantasy, or Supernatural Thrillers and as someone who enjoys horror cinema and television, this is a question I often ask.
Why are horror genre television shows like Supernatural, Sleepy Hollow, Grimm, American Horror Story, Penny Dreadful and The Walking Dead so popular?
From an early age, we learn to recognize and accept familiar shapes and scenarios. A two-year-old can tell you a bird is a bird because it looks like a bird. It does not matter if that bird is a stuffed toy, a drawing of a bird, or an actual pigeon or parrot.
This ability is also the source of prejudice and stereotyping. We might see a sweaty young man wearing thick glasses with tape holding the cracked frame in place and assume he is a nerd. In that assumption, we also assume he is awkward in social situations, highly intelligent and into things like tabletop role playing games and computer coding. In reality, he might be a criminal who broke his glasses while fleeing a strong-arm robbery he committed, which would also explain his sweat, but most would never associate such a person with the committal of a violent crime.
We recognize and accept patterns.
What would you think? He’s drunk? Maybe he fell and hurt himself, or someone beat him up?
If this was a movie, you might notice these things or you might not, but the audience notices that you don’t notice. That would make for an unsettling scene.
Let’s continue with the scene: A little girl, also staggering, follows a few feet behind the man.
Now normally, children don’t get drunk. Are they victims of the same beating? Not likely. Were they in a car accident?
Now a woman passes your window. She is staggering too.
Three people staggering up the block at the same time? Things are not fitting into the patterns you have grown to recognize and accept. You do not recognize this pattern, and when faced with that lack of recognition, we are disturbed. We whisper “What the hell?”
And then, we investigate this new pattern.
Is that woman missing a chunk out flesh of her cheek? She is!
The response you expect from a person with a chunk missing from their face is to press a hand to the wound as they scream in agony. But this woman just keeps on walking by. She’s staggering, yes, but not like she’s really all that messed up. She certainly isn’t acting the way you would moan if you somehow lost most of your cheek.
Wait! Now Mr. Grayson, the eighty year old recluse who lives across the street just burst out of his front door and is running down the street as fast as his bowed and twisted legs can carry him. And Mrs. Grayson, his wife, is now staggering out the door. Her eyes are wide and her face is a mask of anger. Obviously Mrs. Grayson is pretty pissed off. Mr. Grayson walking away from an argument makes sense, but an eighty year old man – a recluse at that – running away from his angry wife does not. You do not recognize this pattern either. Now, you are really disturbed. “What is going on?” you gasp.
Now, Ray-Ray, the bad little boy who lives three houses down from you, is hauling ass up the street. He is sprinting past Mrs. Grayson. Mrs. Grayson just grabbed Ray-Ray. He’s trying to pull away and is screaming at the top of his lungs…Mrs. Grayson has just bitten off all the fingers on Ray-Ray’s hand and is now chewing his little digits with delight.
“Oh, shit!” you scream. An old woman eating a bad ass little boy’s fingers does not fit any pattern at all. You need a pattern that makes sense. Helping Ray-Ray makes sense. That is a patterned response you understand.
You grab your old Louisville Slugger baseball bat – you aren’t taking any chances with Mrs. Grayson’s crazy ass. You charge out of your house with the baseball raised and ready to strike…but hold up…Ray-Ray doesn’t seem to notice his fingers are missing and his eyes now look as crazed as Mrs. Grayson’s.
You need a pattern you recognize. You need a template for action.
Something that lets you know you have not lost your grip on reality; that you still exist in the world that you know.
Now fear slithers up your spine and coils around the depths of your brain. Your primitive cortex freaks out as your frontal cortex madly searches your hippocampus for anything even remotely familiar.
Congratulations. You are now officially experiencing horror.
A “drunk” man (familiar) becomes something different (because the little girl is also “drunk” and little girls don’t get drunk) and an angry elderly lady, like Mrs. Grayson is not uncommon, but is drastically off when that elderly lady bites off and eats someone’s body parts (elderly ladies don’t tend to eat other people).
Being afraid is our body’s well-developed threat response system that tells us something is not quite right and prepares us to run or to fight. This fight-or-flight response is very similar to other high arousal responses such as those that occur when we are happy, excited, and surprised. The context is important when it comes to whether we put a positive or negative spin on the experience.
Being scared during the Zombie Run obstacle course at Piedmont Park, in Midtown Atlanta, with your friends? Good!
Not everyone likes being scared though, even in a safe place. For some, a racing heart, sweaty palms and the weight of anticipation is just too much to bear, let alone purposefully induce. But for others, being scared in a safe place is a source of enjoyment and makes them feel good. It can even serve as a confidence boost, reminding us that we can make it through a scary situation; that we are strong.
As far as the stereotype that Black people just aren’t into horror, we have been made to fear so much – the police, the dark, taking risks in business, God, the Devil, Hell, sinning, being labeled a government agent or informant, AIDS, what others think of how we dress, and so on ad nauseam, that for someone to create something that scares us – or to like the feeling of being scared – seems insane. To that I say fear is the root of all conflict and control. In order to be truly free; to be truly happy, we cannot be ruled by “fear,” which really isn’t fear at all.
Fear is a signal that warns of impending great bodily harm or death. It is a natural survival mechanism, thus it is positive. What we often label as fear is actually Worry – manufactured fear. Worry is unnatural and destructive.
Our worries limit us. I choose to operate from a position of power, not worry, thus I write what I choose; what I enjoy and the writing is better because of that. It is better to turn a negative experience into an enjoyable one, to be free of the shackles of worry. So, embrace the scary things; enjoy them; experience them on your terms.