Halloween has been and gone, and all we’ve got are the Pumpkins and the leftover sweets. In the UK, the next big thing is Bonfire Night on 5th November, so there are fireworks going on most evenings, somewhere. I’m a fan of Halloween, even though being a HSP (highly sensitive person) you’d think that I’d be terrified of the idea of voluntarily scaring myself, or being exposed to shock and fear. I’m also prone to mild anxiety, so watching or experiencing things that have the possibility of giving me nightmares is asking for trouble. And yet – I still seek out and enjoy horror, thrillers, and the supernatural as genres – films, books, and even my own writing.
I used to have vivid, recurring nightmares when I was a child. My first recurring nightmare was a jumble of things connected to the films and TV series I watched, namely the BBC adaptation of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Neverending Story (the servant of the Nothing, G’mork), and one terrifying viewing of Alien (which should have been illicit but my Dad mistakenly put me in front of it when he was babysitting one evening). Alien in particular gave me nightmares for weeks, and it wasn’t until a few years ago that I could re-watch it. It was the fear within my own imagination that scared me the most – the ability for my subconscious to twist what I was watching, already scary enough, into something even more horrifying.
So why do I value horror? Why do I willingly seek it out when I know that I’ll be haunted, repulsed, or terrified of what I’m watching or reading? Maybe because I’m aware of my own shadow side, which I understand is dark and unknown, and in turn, is drawn to genres that mirrors that darkness. Everyone has a shadow side; the side of us that we know is there but we consciously choose not to act upon: which we know can be dangerous and complicated. The world, and humans, have darkness. Fictional horror can give us a way to acknowledge that, to see it, and understand it, to stare horror in the face and confront fear itself.
I recently read an excellent and thought-provoking post by Chuck Wendig about the horror genre. Essentially, he argues that horror is everywhere – in many different genres. You can find elements of horror in almost every story, even Harry Potter. Horror is fear, the worst happening, a mood. As a storyteller, horror, for me, is all about seeing into the dark, looking at what makes us afraid, and how we can cope with that. I’d argue that reading and watching something with an element of horror is my way of testing myself, of checking that I can deal with the painful things that life can bring. All readers may be able to relate to how books can help us to feel, understand, and digest difficult things. And fear is one of those difficult things.
‘We need to look long into the dark. It’s part of who we are. We like to be scared. It gives us context. It gives us control. It helps us take the horror of the real world and give it shape so that we can conquer it, if only a little. Out of discomfort we find comfort.’ – Chuck Wendig, Why Is Horror So Anathema in Publishing?
Most Halloweens, my tradition is to watch a couple of horror films, or supernatural-based films (or TV series). Last year, I watched (for what must be the billionth time) The Lost Boys, and a film I hadn’t yet watched, Misery, with Kathy Bates. I didn’t enjoy Misery, but was compelled to watch it to the end anyway! This year I roped my patient husband into watching The Babadook with me, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Donald Sutherland and Jeff Goldblum (in his film debut!). I didn’t really like The Babadook – it gave me a feeling of unsteadiness and I wasn’t quite sure about the ending. Whilst Invasion of the Body Snatchers was good old-fashioned 70s horror, with a horrifying ending and icky biological pods creating clones of people. I quite like psychological horror and supernatural films, but don’t watch slasher or torture films, because I find them pointless, and distasteful (though there are some exceptions like Scream).
I wouldn’t say that I’m desensitised to things, though because I’ve watched a lot of different films and series over the years, I probably am used to seeing certain things, though they still make me flinch and shock me. I’m a sensitive soul at heart and empathise strongly with characters and people, so I’m not one to laugh at pain or violence. There are certain things that I won’t watch – I’ve watched a few series of American Horror Story but I can’t always bring myself to keep watching it. I can’t watch some horror films without someone (or the cat) in the room with me, and I’d never watch something scary if I was alone in the house – my imagination is too overactive.
In the end, horror, as a genre, is more than you’d expect. If you look at it as a mood and tool within all fiction, it elevates it to something much more interesting and valuable. It isn’t all about the fright or the shocks. It’s about the darkness of the world, gazing into it, and naming it for what it is.