Why do people love horror? It seems like a banal enough question; we might as well ask why people like kimchi, or ghost peppers. Humans are endlessly delighted by stimulation, and as even a casual fan of BDSM will tell you, sometimes pleasure is sweeter when it’s been spiked with a little pain. Is that all it is? Are fans of horror indulging their taste for having their neurons flogged, folks high on adrenaline the way an extreme sports enthusiast or roller coaster fanatic is? Or is there a deeper attraction – cold metaphorical bones beneath the twitchy flesh of scares-as-thrills?
In some cases, scares are just harmless fun. I clearly remember – from the days before the plague- the feeling of watching a horror movie in a theater on Friday night: the giggles, the whispers, and the collective feelings of tension and release. And while we’re on the subject of tension and release, it’s worth noting in the era of “Netflix ‘n chill” that the use of horror film as an aphrodisiac has a long and storied history, and with scary fare streaming in the comfort of one’s own bedroom, there has never been a better time to snuggle close with a loved one and let horror work its magic. There’s nothing wrong with going to a horror movie with your friends (once COVID has been brought under control) – and certainly nothing wrong with watching one with your spouse or partner. That’s all well and good.
It’s worth narrowing the focus of the question and personalizing it, then. Why do I love horror? The answer to that question is a little more complex. Since before I was an adolescent, I’ve been attracted to the morbid, monstrous, and fantastic in fiction – not unusual for a human produced by the decades that saw Stephen King, Wes Craven, and even RL Stine rise to hyperfame. I was no casual fan, however. My love of horror was hatched early, and as I fed it a steady diet of novels and movies it grew into a constant companion. At this point, some time in my early teen years, I began to notice something about the horror fiction that so moved and engrossed me.
Spicy food reacts the way it does on our tongue due to notably high levels of compounds that, interestingly enough, actually hurt us. Unlike the ordeal of the gom jabbbar, the pain produced by a ghost pepper is real because the harm is real (although temporary and intentionally self-inflicted). Spicy food allows us to experience in a safe way the same neurological effects we would get from being, say, burned alive. In a sense, food that bites back is a sort of culinary Maraṇasati, a lip-sizzling sensory version of the funerary brand of the Tibetan Buddhist Great Perfection.
Just as spicy food allows us to physically embody pain and destruction, to feel as though we are being burned alive when we are not, a gory, nihilistic horror film allows us to experience in a safe environment the bodily trauma that will one day happen to us, whether before or (perhaps, if we’re lucky) after we expire. Horror presents us with a truth that would be unspeakable in other contexts: the truth of meat.
By “the truth of meat,” I mean the nasty, blood-and-guts nature of human existence, the all-too embodied body. When we watch a monster decapitate and munch on a hapless villager, we are presented with an image – a shadow – of our own inevitable destruction, the total dissolution of our self. We can experience outside of ourselves what we will experience in reality and in ourselves only once. The reason, in short, that I love horror is because it has allowed me to confront my fear of death and nonexistence in a direct, visceral way before I am presented with my own terminus.
So drench your nachos in ghost pepper hot sauce, feel the burn, and watch some helpless teenagers get torn to bits by a demented psychopath. There’s nothing wrong with you (at least, nothing that isn’t wrong with me, too). You’re just smart enough to rehearse and to mentally and physically prepare yourself for the inevitable.