“I think that we’re all mentally ill; those of us outside the asylums only hide it a little better—and maybe not all that much better, after all.”—Stephen King
These are the starting words to Stephen King’s essay, “Why We Crave Horror Movies” (1). King goes on to give several reasons why he believes that people enjoy horror films. He states that it's due to the films giving us the feeling of conquering a fear, making us feel better about our own situations, and providing us a healthy means by which to give in to our darker nature. He ends the essay by comparing our morbid thoughts and dark fantasies to alligators locked away in your mind. The alligators will stay docile and make no attempts for escape, as long as they stay fed. King's standards, horror films are a safe way to feed them.
Many have argued with the type of logic used in King’s essay. After all, if left unfed for long enough, wouldn’t the alligators metaphorically just starve to death? Others agree with the concept of humans inherently having a darker nature. The founder of psychoanalysis, and famed neurologist, Sigmund Freud held similar views about dreams—believing that nightmares were really just our secret desires being acted out in a way that was socially acceptable (2).
I regularly refer to Stephen King as “the king of horror.” Though many other greats have existed before and after him, it is difficult to think of many authors who are as culturally relevant. As a horror writer, he created Carrie, It, The Shining, Christine, Pet Sematary, Cujo, Misery, Gerald’s Game, and many more. Every one of those books listed was adapted into a film. He knows his craft. In this case, however, I don’t entirely agree with him.
One reason I believe that people enjoy horror is because the stories are often simple and familiar. Sure, you most likely didn’t get bedtime stories about people getting chased through the woods by a chainsaw-wielding maniac when you were a very young child. Many of us were raised on fairy tales and similar stories though. The type where the knight slays the dragon or the princess outsmarts the evil stepmother. The types of stories where villains are obviously and completely bad, from their ugly outer appearance, to their inner evil. The stories where the heroes are similarly obvious and always win.
Many of us grew up with tales told in black-and-white morality, where it was fun to root for the hero and satisfying to see the villain get punished. A lot of those feelings carry over to the horror genre. We are given villains who are made to be so obviously evil that there’s sometimes no need for them to even talk in order to incite fear, as we see with Michael Myers of the Halloween franchise. You will often see the cliche of people watching horror films while yelling at the characters on the screen (“don’t go in the basement!”), because we are still following that desire to have a hero to root for. Punishments are given to those who the audience, on some level, might believe deserve it. Even when the villain lurks off for a potential sequel, we often get to see the rude character who brushed off our hero’s concerns get killed, or we’ll get the cliche of the teens having sex being murdered on screen (while the virgin heroine survives).
That last example may be outdated and a good deal sexist, but it’s still relevant. The trope exists for a reason. We want the world around us to make sense. It can be a huge relief to see something that exists in an area outside of moral greyness for once.
Not all horror movies follow that simplicity. We get films where the hero dies, everyone dies, or there’s an out-of-this-world plot twist that completely throws you for a loop. I also have to agree with King’s concept that some people use horror as an outlet. I don’t think everyone does in the way that he suggests though.
I absolutely love horror. I enjoy it to the point that I’ve started a blog about it (Redcap Reviews). I am also fully aware that I use it as an outlet for dark thoughts. My dark thoughts aren’t those of wanting to hurt people or anything of a similarly morbid nature though. My problem is that I have a panic disorder. When my anxiety ramps up, it can take over everything I do. Horror films provide me a safer outlet for that. I can let my anxiety and overthinking fixate on trying to map out what the characters should do in their situation, instead of having that part of my mind hyperfixate on my own life. My usage of this has helped lead to me disassociating less frequently and no longer having panic attacks on a regular basis. (NOTE: This is something that helps me, specifically, as well as being something I have discussed with my therapist. I would not recommend it for everyone.)
There’s other potential mental gains to the genre. On the topic of the empowered feeling that comes from conquering fears, horror author Joseph D’Lacey approached it from a more positive light than King: “I'm convinced that people who write and read horror are saner and better-adjusted than those who casually dismiss the genre. By engaging with horror, we take a journey into every possible fear. We open the closet door, rip the mask from the psycho's face, embrace ghosts and demons, cast ourselves into the hellish chasm of the imagination. We return, not polluted but cleansed and set free" (3). Horror films have also been shown to have some positive impacts on your physical health—some studies have found that viewing scary movies could raise your white blood cell count, and help you burn calories (4).
In the end, I don’t think it fully matters why someone enjoys the genre, as long as it’s not having any kind of negative effect on them. Horror can carry a stigma that makes people question it far more than other genres of films. The main thing to take away from this: loving Friday the 13th doesn’t make someone dangerous or mentally unstable.
Bulkeley, Kelly. An Introduction to the Psychology of Dreaming. Praeger, 1997.