Oh, For The Love of Horror

Why do we like to be scared?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

I think I was about 8 years old (1984/85) when I first watched ‘The Shining’. Mesmerised by the music from the very beginning, I had stumbled across this film by accident. Dad was out and my mum and sister had gone upstairs to bed. I couldn’t sleep and so tip-toed downstairs and plonked myself down in front of the TV. I remember clearly sitting on the floor with my back against the sofa, not daring to move or make a sound as I witnessed what was to be my first brush with ‘horror’.

The concept of telepathy, that boy – Danny Torrence, room 237, the twins and the decaying woman in the bathroom are as vivd a picture in my mind today as they were all those years ago. I have watched this film many times in the intervening years between then and now, and still get chills as I recall the 8 year old me sitting agog as the story unfolded. I had experienced a type of ‘fear’ that night that made me feel energised and curious. I knew then that I wanted to see more…

These were the days before the internet/google – I was desperate to find out more about this film, but I had to be patient. I talked to friends at school who had older siblings, they told me it was Written by Stephen King and that he had written lots of horror type books and so began my Stephen King obsession…starting with ‘Salems Lot’ (I still have my first copy to this day with my name and age proudly scrawled on the first page), then Pet Semetary, Cujo, Carrie, Needful Things, Misery, Dolores Claiborne…I devoured these books over the subsequent years and knew that this type of ‘horror’ was for me. I kept an eye out for the films to come on TV and borrowed Video tapes from friends who already had copies of these films.

By the time I was 15 I had read pretty much all that Stephen King had written to date and had watched all the movies multiple times. I have very recently read ‘Sleeping Beauties’ which Stephen King wrote with his son Owen, who is also an accomplished writer – I enjoyed this book, super detailed as all King’s books tend to be, however, it’s different reading these types of stories as an adult – nothing quite compares to discovering this genre as a youngster…craving and enjoying the fear and the unpredictability of the story.

As a child and into my teens I was lost in King’s world – his creation of fictional towns that would always be set in or around the Maine area of the US seemed so real to me – I imagined I was a part of it. His style of writing about ordinary families or a group of school aged kids who would stumble upon something huge in their quiet little town was a recipe for success. ‘Stand by Me’ became one of my favourites (Based on King’s Novella ‘The Body’) and at the age of 12, when I watched this film for the first time I was struck by the parting words of the film’s protagonist/narrator – “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”. These words struck a chord…and still do.

My reading of the horror genre didn’t really extend much beyond Stephen King, bar a couple of Dean Koontz and James Herbert novels and I have a few graphic novels in my collection that would be described as horror, but my love of horror films was born in those early years and continues to this day…

The soundtrack to Halloween should go down in history as one of the scariest yet, in my opinion. The 80s/90s for me are dominated by memories of a long list of horror movies – Nightmare on Elm Street (one, two Freddie’s coming for you!), Evil Dead, Hellraiser, Poltergeist, Fright Night, Day of The Dead, Friday the 13th, and Tales from the Darkside among many others.

I have often wondered why I was so drawn to horror. When I was younger I would almost ‘set the scene’…wait for my parents to go out, turn out the lights in the living room, leave the door open a crack and put on a film that I knew would scare me out of my wits. I’d sit there, often alone, in the dark, spellbound, not daring to go to to the toilet which I inevitably needed as soon as the film started and waited for the adrenaline to kick in. I craved the controlled sense of fear that these movies gave me. Yes I was scared, but deep down I knew there was nothing behind the crack in the open door or hiding in the shadows of the darkened room or lurking down the toilet. I was almost testing myself to see what I could tolerate. I know I’m not alone in feeling this way and much research has been done into this area; why do we like to be scared?

According to Professor of Psychology Dr David Zald –

“Fear and pleasure are very closely related. The same physiological reactions occur in both cases”

Journalist Kashmira Gander goes on to explain –

“When a person is afraid, the amygdala, an almond-shaped set of neurons in the brain, triggers the “fight or flight” response, causing palms to sweat, pupils to dilate, and ensures that the body is pumped with dopamine and adrenaline. Our bodies respond to both genuine and fabricated fear in this way, but feelings of pleasure rely on the individual and whether a person subconsciously knows they are safe.”

So, this seems to suggest that when we are exposed to fear in a controlled environment, we do experience ‘fight or flight’ and all the bodily changes that are associated with it, but subconsciously we know we are safe, as were are simply watching a film, so this ‘fear’ translates as a pleasurable physiological reaction. Makes sense to me.

I recently saw the film ‘The Quiet Place’. Anyone else seen it – what did you think? The plot focus’ on  a family who ‘must live life in silence while hiding from creatures which hunt exclusively by sound.’ For me, it was  intense (not least because you could hear a pin drop such was the level of quiet in this almost completely silent cinematic experience ) – edge of your seat stuff, laced with some emotional moments that only occur as a result of building an honest relationship with the characters that are brilliantly developed and genuine. I haven’t been to the cinema to see a horror flick in well over a decade – I’m glad I did. Like 2017s ‘Get me out’, ‘The Quiet Place’ is a modern horror that takes you on an involved journey – there’s no passive observations here…just how I like it!

In our modern world, where horror, violence and aggression in film is so easily accessible it would be understandable if we (including the younger generation) were desensitised to the fear effects of such films, but I’m not sure if this is the case. The low budget quality of a film such as ‘The Shining’ only adds to the scariness of the film, this too could be said of films such as ‘The Exorcist’ or ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. When speaking to a group of sixth form students who I used to teach, they agreed that earlier horror films were scarier to them…’the characters seem somehow more vulnerable back then, which makes it more frightening’.

Horror films are not for everyone (individual personality traits play a huge role in our appreciation or lack thereof of the horror genre) and I definitely have a preference for those that could potentially be ‘real’ – I’m less keen on films that involve make-believe creatures (the end of Stephen Kings ‘IT’ will always be a disappointment to me for this reason), but the brutality of the situation presented in ‘The Quiet Place’ left me unnerved as to how convinced I was by the creatures who hunt and kill by sound. For me, the nostalgia of the horror films of the 80s will always have their place, but perhaps it’s time I gave the modern horror (and those that include non-human alien creaturey things) a little more attention.

I will however be forever convinced that Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees are out there somewhere, waiting to get me…


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1 Comment

  • Love this post! Zombies are my thing – I used to watch all of the old ones with my parents when I was younger. I remember my first one – there was a teacher day at school and as the eldest I was the only one off school. We had cups of tea and biscuits whilst watching Zombie Flesh Eaters. I’ve loved zombie films ever since! I love other horror too – old black and white movies like House on Haunted Hill and The Haunting. Because the rely so much more on the music and suspense, plus with black and white you can’t really see properly either so your imagination works more!

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