Pleasure in Fear: The Horror Genre

I should not have googled "under bed scary." *hides under covers*
I should not have googled “under bed scary.”
*hides under covers*

When I was about eight, a babysitter (who had apparently not been briefed on my parents’ ban on all things violent and scary) told me a scary story at bedtime. It was a variation on a classic theme: a young girl is left home alone with no one but her faithful dog. She is woken in the middle of the night by the sound of a leaky tap in the bathroom, but is too frightened to get up and shut it off. She reaches down to her dog, who licks her hand in reassurance. She drifts off to sleep. When her parents arrive home the next day, they find their daughter murdered in her bed, and her faithful dog gutted and dripping in the shower. A cryptic message is scrawled across the wall in blood: Humans can lick too.

With the wisdom granted by adulthood, I can now see that there are some glaring inconsistencies in this story. For instance, why would the murderer slay the girl’s dog and then hide under her bed for an indeterminate amount of time? Was he hoping for the opportunity to lick her hand? Did the message hold some kind of significance for her parents, and if not, why bother writing it? Neither the cleverest nor the most original tale, I’m afraid. But despite all that, I can say with complete honesty that this story terrified me.

Scared. Me. Shitless.

For a good year or two after hearing that story I religiously checked my closet for the bevy of hand-licking psychos I was certain were after me. The thought of what would happen if I ever actually discovered one of these palm-laving crazies never really entered into the equation. Perhaps he would stomp a foot in frustration and slink out into the night to lurk under some other little girl’s bed while I slept soundly, triumphant in the knowledge that he would never lick my hand.

But, I digress. I also proceeded to tell the terrifying story to everyone I knew. On sleepovers and camping trips. At pool parties. On movie nights. Even though hearing the story had scared the pants off me, I wanted everyone else to experience the same rush of fear that I had. Because the fear had been just that: a rush. A mix of adrenaline and terror and something like pleasure. Even though it had scared me, I had enjoyed being scared, and that was the feeling I wanted to share with everyone else.

Make that three fears. Falling, loud noises,  and The Ring.
Make that three fears. Falling, loud noises,
and The Ring.

Babies are born with only two innate fears: the fear of loud noises, and the fear of falling. Every other fear, anxiety, and phobia known to man is learned during the intervening years between infancy and adulthood. Spiders. Monsters. Murderous hand fetishists hiding under your bed.

Throughout human history, fear has been valuable. Fear is what has kept our species alive for so long. Fear tells us when our safety is being threatened, when we should be running for our lives or raising weapons to defend ourselves. Fear keeps us hunting for food so that we don’t starve come winter. Fear reminds us to light the campfire so that the darkness (and what lives inside it) stays away. Our learned fears keep us safe and keep us alive.

But most modern humans don’t have many concrete things to fear anymore. We may worry about rogue nuclear powers, or not being able to pay our taxes, or trans fats in junk food, but there isn’t much that we really fear. No sharp-toothed nasties ready to rip our throats out if the bonfire isn’t big enough. No spear-wielding tribesmen come to burn our huts and rape our women. No gut-twisting, heart-pounding, hair-raising terror.

So we search for it in other places. Alfred Hitchcock once said:

Give them pleasure – the same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare.

Queue screechy violins...
Queue screechy violins…

And that is what the horror genre gives us. Pleasure in fear. That’s why Stephen King books fly off the shelves and get turned into movies and remade into newer movies. That’s why there were seven Saw movies, complete with blood and screaming and psychological torture. That’s why Psycho is Alfred Hitchcock’s most popular and infamous film. That’s why every so often I rewatch The Ring even though I know I’ll have to sleep with the light on afterwards.

Being scared is titillating. Why? Maybe now that we aren’t constantly clawing our way through life, desperately fighting for survival, we crave that adrenaline and that danger. Or maybe it’s practice, so that if you ever do meet a finger-tasting lunatic, you’ll know to run.

Well. Stick your hands in your pockets first, and then run.

Do you enjoy books or movies in the horror genre? Do you enjoy being scared? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

5 Comments

  1. Emmie Mears
    Reply

    Love this. I think fear is also a learning factor. They’ve done studies that show people who contemplate their actions in hypothetical events are able to respond more quickly and rationally if any such events occur, for instance with muggings. If people spend time thinking about or actively considering what they would do, their brains are able to click into that if it actually happens.

    A lot of children’s games are fear-based: hide and seek, tag, all those myriad little living stories kids tell while running a hand down each other’s spines or shoving their buddy just as they shout, “And she PUSHED HIM OVER THE CLIFF!” They’re silly (but rather effective) training for evasion, hiding, and hunting.

    • Lyra Selene
      Reply

      Interesting take! I hadn’t thought of the fear-based children’s games, but i can definitely see what you mean about how they’re training for real-life survival situations.

      Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  2. Melissa Deihl
    Reply

    Did you ink the first picture?

  3. Melissa Deihl
    Reply

    Love to be scared…it’s funny how a survival queue has become a entertainment genre….

    • Lyra Selene
      Reply

      I know! What wacky creatures we humans are–we finally get ourselves to the top of the food chain, and what do we do for fun? Scare ourselves!

      Thanks for the comment! (And no, I didn’t draw the first picture)

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