“The call was coming from inside the house.” This now infamous line from the urban legend is chilling, and powerful too. There are others, of course; “Whose hand was I holding?” from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a creeptastic classic. But what is it about fear in storytelling that audiences find so addictive?
“Every story is, in its tiny way, a horror story,” says author Chuck Wendig. “Horror is about fear and tragedy, and whether or not one is capable of overcoming those things. It’s not all about severed heads or blood-glutton vampires. It’s an existential thing, a tragic thing, and somewhere in every story this dark heart beats.”
So lock the front door, check under the bed for monsters, and huddle under the covers as we take you through the three reasons why sometimes, just sometimes, it’s good to be afraid.
- Horror holds up a funhouse mirror to the real world.
You could rationally argue that real life already has enough frightening, dangerous things in it without imagining more ghosts, vampires or werewolves into existence. But it is equally possible to argue that scary stories provide a valuable service in this regard.
While we have Walt Disney to thank for the sanitisation of many fairy stories, the originals collected by the Brothers Grimm were dark, cautionary tales, told to children for whom death by disease or starvation was a very real threat. And while kids today might not face the same dangers as they did back then, they still have a whole host of other worries, like bullies. Learning about fear within the context of a story can be incredibly empowering for young people, says comic book creator Greg Ruth: “Plainly put, horror provides a playground in which kids can dance with their fears in a safe way that can teach them how to survive monsters and be powerful, too.”
Horror fiction has always echoed the world around it. Victor Frankenstein was a character whose own hubris led him to play god, at a time when scientific and technological advancements were threatening to overtake the status quo. Count Dracula, meanwhile, was the ultimate symbol of moral corruption, an insidious and seductive aggressor to traditional Victorian values. These days, the apocalyptic thriller exploits our uniquely 21st century fears; contagion, climate change, the terrifying possibility of a life without internet or infrastructure. And then there is the classic ghost story, which has at its heart one of the oldest burning questions in human history; what happens to us after we die? Stories provide a safe space in which to explore and unpack these ideas.
- Fear stimulates the brain.
Making people jump or scream can be just as powerful as making people laugh, in terms of the emotional and chemical response it provokes. While the amygdala is the part of the brain that responds to danger in real life, it is the visual cortex which is stimulated by horror films. Watching a scary movie creates a “sustained anxiety”, after which the viewer experiences a rush of endorphins similar to that felt by somebody who has just been on a rollercoaster. In that sense, horror buffs are no different from adrenaline junkies; except watching a film is a lot safer than jumping out of a plane.
- Being scared can bring people together.
Whether you and your friends are telling ghost stories round a campfire, or all jumping at the same part of a slasher film, sharing these narratives can be an intense, constructive communal experience. (If you and your friends never tried to sneak into a horror film when you were kids, you missed out on an important rite of passage.) These films drive conversations in a way that no other form of storytelling can quite achieve; just think back to the controversies caused by films such as The Exorcist and The Blair Witch Project.
There’s also some dubious research to support the theory that fear can strengthen romantic attraction; a 1980s study conducted by Dolf Zillman and Norbert Mundof revealed that women are more attracted to men who remain stoic during a horror film, while men are more attracted to women who display fear and vulnerability. Perhaps the most horrifying results of this study are the archaic gender stereotypes — it would be interesting to see the same research carried out on audiences in 2015.
So what’s the key to telling a scary story?
The first goal of a horror story is not to scare you. Its first goal is the same as any other story; it has to convince you that what is happening is real. Then it has the power to actually scare you.
One of the masters of this is Stephen King, of course, who will create characters or entire towns that feel plucked from the real world, each complete with their own detailed, often mundane history. The protagonists of a King story aren’t the beautiful teenaged heroes and heroines of a slasher film; they’re more likely to be housewives or librarians.
A good storyteller will wait until these people’s lives feel real, until they begin to matter to us, before they pull the rug out from under our feet and send in the killer clowns.