The Psychology of Genre: Horror

Yikes!

Writing about the psychology of Horror and why we’re attracted to the genre is proving quite a challenge. Despite being one of my favourite genres to read, write and watch its actually quite hard to work out why we as readers even like Horror.

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After all, Horror kind of sits a little to the side of other genres, ironically perhaps as the creepy friend that no-one really ‘gets’. For one thing its a genre where unhappy endings are much more common and even sought or demanded! Also compared to the other topics we’ve talked about I feel like Horror doesn’t really have the same clear rules of other genres. I mean you typically have to scare the reader, or gross them out, or have some level of disturbia, but I’m not sure there is necessarily too many demands on exactly how that should be done.

Perhaps somewhat similar to Sci-Fi, Horror provides a set of tropes and styles that then get imposed on some other typically story, such as mystery, love story, or (Twisted) coming of age story.

So why do we like this genre?

I had to dive into the musings of a couple of Horror Heavy-weights: Neil Gaiman and Stephen King to try and make sense of it. They each have quite different takes on the subject, and King’s point that he thought we were all a little (or a lot) crazy and Horror provided a safe way to indulge that (admittedly King was more talking about gory horror films rather than books) whereas Gaiman thought that we enjoyed the thrill-ride, partially knowing that there was always safety in closing the book.

But it was actually a side point Gaiman made that struck me – the idea of fictional horrors providing a reprieve from the very real horrors of the world, while still touching on the feelings that the real horrors cause.

I think this resonates as one of my theories about Crime novels is that they create a sense of being in control of lawlessness which pleases us, whereas Horror kinda takes of the opposite tact – rather than making the reader feel in control of their fear, they throw them into a world of completely uncontrollable and senseless horror. Almost like providing a reader with a sense of “well being broke 24/7 might be bad but at least I’m not getting dragged into a hell-dimension”

It’s important to note that I don’t think this is the immediate experience for readers of Horror, My theory is its a little bit of a one-two punch.

The other element I only touched on – human nature is that we enjoy a bit of a thrill-ride one doesn’t have to look to far to see this, bungee jumping, sky-diving, theme-park rides. (as a side note despite my love of Horror fiction I’m not a fan of these real-world thrills). Despite being portrayed as a typically bad thing, fear does have its flip-side, adrenaline can be one helluva drug, when scared our minds and bodies tend to zap into focus – which especially in this modern age of flopping about on the couch in front of phones, TVs, and laptops (whoops) being thrown into a state of alertness can be quite pleasant!

(recall that psychology study where men were more likely to ask for a date from the experimenter if they’d just walked across a scary swing-bridge)

So the one-two punch I’m referring to is that the immediate experience of Horror while usually described as ‘fear’ quite a negative event, the reality is a sharpening of the senses and surge of a adrenaline. However once over, or between breaks in reading also an after-effect of a great sense of control or “Thank God” feeling as you sit back down and realize you’re not being haunted by a cadre of old-timey ghosts who died on your property between 50-100 years ago.

I think what stands out for me is how Horror’s attraction is perhaps a little different from other fiction – rather than looking for character resolution or dramatic tension, Horror fans are typically looking for the thrill-ride. This may explain why readers are more likely to tolerate a crass or cheesy horror compared to their tolerance for badly written romance, or crime novels (although I’m sure fans of any genre will gravitate that way).

 

Anywho – those are my thoughts for the most popular (fiction) genres out there. This brings about the end of my list – although I do plan on doing a summary and some thoughts on how understanding genre may help our writing.

 

Are there any genres that people want to hear about?

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