Horror Isn’t All About the Scares

I have a confession to make. I’m a huge fan of horror, but very little of it actually scares me. I’ve been fascinated by the genre ever since I picked up my first book on “true” paranormal encounters from the school library. I still remember reading about someone’s experience seeing a black, shadowy mass and how it intrigued and excited me.

But hundreds of stories, movies, novels, haunted houses, video games, and songs later, I can honestly say that probably 95% of horror doesn’t scare me. In the beginning, when I was younger, I’m sure I was easier to frighten. Even then, there was a lot that felt fun, thrilling, spooky, creepy, and surreal. Just not scary.

Despite this fact, I genuinely do love horror in practically all its forms. Ghost stories, slasher flicks, demonic possessions, zombie plagues, alien invasions, evil cults, psychological terrors — you name it, I like it. The weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft is among my favorites when it comes to horror. Many of his tales are not what I’d call frightening, yet I still love them.

This speaks to one of the most frustrating criticisms of horror that I constantly hear from other people, be they layperson, fan, or critic. Recently I finished The Haunting of Bly Manor and found myself curiously perusing some reviews and opinion pieces on the show, a number of which spend a fair amount of time debating how scary it is, especially next to The Haunting of Hill House. My question is: does it matter?

Of course, I recognize that there are many people who turn to horror with the express purpose of being scared. It’s fun when it happens to most of us, and it’s practically undeniable that it’s an important part of horror fiction. But it should be obvious that different people are scared by different things. Simply stating that you didn’t find a book or a movie to be scary is quite a subjective observation.

I also suspect that there’s something more going on when people deny how scary something is. Particularly when that something happens to be getting a lot of critical acclaim. It has that familiar ring to it of the kid at school showing off how tough he is by saying, “The Exorcist? Pfft, nah, that didn’t scare me.” It can be an easy way of socially situating yourself as either a strong-minded individual or an impartial and rational reviewer.

On the other hand, I’ve noticed that when many people elaborate on their experiences with horror fiction, they often draw subtle distinctions. In general, to be scared is just to be in a state of fear. Yet when we talk about horror movies and horror literature, a lot of us seem to talk about fear, anxiety, discomfort, creepiness, and other concepts as if they’re different from being scared. Perhaps the experience we get from the times we’ve been “scared shitless” is so strong and overwhelming that we find it hard to believe in this context that being scared is like any other old kind of fear.

Then again, this isn’t always the case. I like the Friday the 13th movies, but not a single one of those has ever really made me fearful. Even the ending of the first film didn’t surprise or scare me because of an unfortunate spoiler I was exposed to before I had a chance to see it. Is Jason Vorhees any less of a horror icon because of this? Of course not. I still consider them horror movies, I still love them, and it really doesn’t matter that they don’t scare me.

Philosopher Noel Carroll writes about the paradox of horror — why we enjoy hearing about or seeing things that should repel us — in an essay fittingly titled, Why Horror? Carroll argues that most horror narratives are structured around the discovery or proof of the existence of a monster. Here the term “monster” is used loosely for something that presents a challenge to, or undermines, our cultural categories and conceptual schemes. The discovery of the monster is exciting to us and gives us pleasure because it satiates our curiosity through revealing what is putatively unknowable.

In Danse Macabre, Stephen King discusses the three core components behind his own works of fright. The first is revulsion, the gross-out or ‘ick’ factor. Second is horror, when the audience is confronted with the unbelievable or the unnatural. Finally, there is terror, the lingering dread and fear of the unknown, which King considers the highest of the three. As he puts it, this is “when the lights go out and when you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against you, and you turn around, there’s nothing there.”

It’s not difficult to see the parallels between King’s formula and Carroll’s view of what makes horror narratives enjoyable to us. Carroll also notes that the monster in the story may not always elicit fear, but usually has a sense of disturbance, distress, or disgust to it because of how it violates the categories known to us. Naturally, we can fear things that disturb, distress, or disgust us, but it isn’t always the case that we do. I’m reminded of the gross, gooey ectoplasm in Ghostbusters. Disgusting? Yes. Scary? Not really.

There are many things to enjoy about horror fiction. We haven’t even touched on topics like the quality of writing, the quality of a performance in a film, the artistic direction, the subtext or social commentary underlying the narrative, and other things that are perfectly legitimate considerations in evaluating good horror. Some of these are always nice to see in film or literature, but I wouldn’t say they really play a role in making something horror. At least with some of the above discussion, I think we can see that even within the confines of the genre, scares are only part of the picture.

The question of whether or not a horror story is scary invites a superficial appreciation, in my opinion. Even when we only ask it ourselves, it’s setting us up for comparing the experience we’re about to have with a whole lot of preceding experiences of very different narratives and media. That may be a force of habit we can’t help, but it still would seem to make it that much more difficult to appreciate something on its own merits, not to mention how that can contribute to eventual disappointment.

As a horror fan, I’ve found that the more of the genre I consume, the rarer it is that something scares me. But once I learned to quit asking for or expecting that particular experience, it seemed like a plethora of other qualities, things, and experiences opened up to me to enjoy. In reality, all of that was probably there before — I was just too focused on reliving one thing. Horror has a lot to say if we’re willing to listen, including when it comes to that feeling of being stuck, wandering in search of something you can’t find, and facing the fear of never finding it again.

Writer, reader, musician, and graduate in philosophy and religious studies.

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