BY BEN THOMAS | Film still from Mulholland Drive (2001)
October is always a peak time for horror viewing. As Halloween approaches, you may be getting into the mood with classics like The Shining, or newer favorites like The Conjuring. Maybe you lean toward artsier takes on the otherworldly, like The Orphanage; or (more controversially) David Lynch's Eraserhead. Whatever your poison, you may find yourself wondering why millions of moviegoers return to such nerve-wracking films year after year. What, exactly, does horror do for us?
One obvious answer is that horror provides a shot of excitement. But while that’s often true, horror operates on deeper levels, too. For example, scary movies give us safe spaces to confront (and overcome) our fears. They can help us process complicated emotions about war, disease, torture, and other upsetting realities. Monsters can operate as stand-ins for the cultural Other, or for aspects of our own culture that make us nervous. Perhaps most profoundly, horror can serve as a road to awe—reawakening our sense of wonder.
Let’s take a closer look at these faces of fear, and discover what our shared nightmares have to teach us about our minds—at both the conscious and subconscious levels.
On a basic physical level, scary scenes activate our “fight-or-flight” responses. While those jolts of adrenaline wouldn’t be much fun if we were in serious danger, the context of a movie theater (or our own couch) lets us enjoy the flood of feel-good chemicals, like endorphins and dopamine, that rush through our bodies when we’re startled. In this sense, watching a horror movie is a bit like eating super-spicy food: it’s a safe way to experience extreme sensations, and literally get high on our bodies’ own stress chemicals.
Beyond the physiological plane, horror movies can also provide a safe space to test our mental fortitude; to prove to ourselves (and to others) that we can make it through a terrifying experience and come out the other side unscathed. In the words of director Wes Craven, “Horror films don’t create fear; they release it”—providing an emotional catharsis that lets us walk out of the theater feeling victorious, and more in control of our collective fear of death.
“Horror films don’t create fear; they release it." - Wes Craven
In fact, some psychologists consider horror films similar to the practice of exposure therapy, in which patients are presented with frightening stimuli in a controlled environment. “[Horror] can actually teach us how to handle real-world stress better,” says Kurt Oaklee, founder of Oaklee Psychotherapy in San Francisco. “During a stressful film, we are intentionally exposing ourselves to anxiety-producing stimuli. We learn how to manage stress in the moment.”
But what makes a movie horrific in the first place? Sometimes, the monsters we fear most are the ones we recognize best.
While monsters can take many forms (human and otherwise), most of them share one key trait: they blur categorical boundaries in ways that feel “wrong.” Frankenstein’s monster, for example, is both alive and dead. A werewolf is both a human and a beast. Freddy Kreuger somehow crosses between dreams and waking life. And yet, despite their alienness, all these monsters resonate with what Sigmund Freud called the uncanny: “that class of the terrifying that leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.”
That terrifying familiarity enables monsters to stand in for the social anxieties of every culture and time period. Atomic mutants at 1950s drive-ins, for instance, mirrored the constant low-boil panic of a generation raised in the shadow of the Bomb. Alien pod people manifested Cold-War paranoia that one’s own neighbors could be communist sleeper agents. In the ‘70s, killers like Halloween’s Michael Myers acted out the violent trauma of the Vietnam War. Today’s zombie apocalypses, meanwhile, reveal the invisible anxieties of a post-9/11 world, where a terrorist attack (or a global pandemic) can shatter our lives without warning.
But monsters don’t always represent the Other. In many horror films, the real “monster” is an aspect of our own society that we’re scared to acknowledge. Frankenstein stage plays, for example, were hugely popular during the era of American slavery. Mad scientists ran amok at the box office while the Tuskegee Experiment was dosing hundreds of black Americans with syphilis. Films like The Exorcist reflected parents’ nervousness about America’s growing interest in the occult. And as U.S. civilians learned of the brutal “enhanced interrogation methods” used at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, horror gave birth to a new subgenre: “torture porn.”
Even so, horror can be about so much more than just pain, gore and revulsion. In the right hands, fear can open the door to beauty—and even awe.
For many horror fans (myself included) the real lure lies not in fear, but in fascination. Noel Carroll’s book The Philosophy of Horror describes this desire as a “paradox of the heart;” an almost voyeuristic yearning to see the exact things we (think we) least want to see. In Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, the narrator Marlow calls it “the fascination of the abomination”—a hunger to plunge “in[to] the midst of the incomprehensible.”
Writing about the films of David Lynch, critic Leonardo Goi expresses an almost spiritual ecstasy at the “panic… of being invited into a world that brims with incandescent, confounding, disturbing beauty.” Though it’s debatable whether Lynch is a horror director, there’s no question that in films like Mulholland Drive, “even the most intimate objects and places are suddenly weaponized as alien, menacing presences”—bringing us back to Freud’s concept of the uncanny, and to the real emotional crux of horror-as-road-to-awe.
In his book The Idea of the Holy, philosopher Rudolf Otto argues that the root of all religious experience is a feeling he calls “the numinous” — a sense of vast, powerful, and ineffable mystery that can’t be framed in terms of other experiences. By confronting us with such mysteries, the greatest horror films compel us to re-experience the familiar world in a heightened, almost childlike way: as an environment that’s alien, raw, terrifying, and immediate in every moment —and therefore, worthy of our awestruck wonder.
Ben Thomas is a journalist and novelist who's lived in 40+ countries. He specializes in telling stories from the frontiers of science, history, culture, and the cosmos—and the points where all these fields intersect. Find him on Twitter at @writingben.