(Originally published 7th June, 2007)
Ghosts, ghouls, goblins, vampires, werewolves and all the things that just go bump in the night. What is it about horror stories that keeps us going back for more?
Since ancient times, people have been telling each other scary stories – or at least stories with scary elements in them – so there’s got to be some part of the human psyche that is attracted to those sorts of things. Plenty of myths and legends have a supernatural element to them, with all sorts of mystical creatures that wanted to destroy the hero of the story, only to be vanquished by the end of the tale.
Even in modern times, horror novels and movies remain popular, with new titles coming out all the time. People like Steven King, Dean Koontz and Wes Craven have made careers out of trying to scare people.
So, what’s the attraction? Why do we keep subjecting ourselves to things that are going to give us the creeps, or in some cases, even give us nightmares?
Well, I think some of it’s got to do with the physical reactions our bodies generate when faced with a scary experience. When something spooks us, adrenaline and a bunch of other hormones are injected into our bloodstreams and our hearts start to race. It’s a rush, pure and simple. It’s the same reason why roller coasters and extreme sports are popular – it gives people a chance to get a natural high from all the chemicals that are circulating in their blood.
But I think there’s more to it than just that. On a deeper level, I think we need scary stories to help us face our shadows. Every one of us has a dark corner of our psyche where we hide all the things that we don’t want to face. It might not be particularly big in the greater scheme of things, but everyone’s got some situation or thing that fills them with dread every time they encounter them – or perhaps even think about it.
Horror stories allow us a safer way to go into the darker reaches of our minds and explore the darkness. It brings some light into those corners where we normally fear to tread. They give us a way to explore our own mortality vicariously through the lives of the characters on the screen.
Going even further than that, I think there’s plenty of life lessons that can be learned from horror stories. In just about every case, the hero of the story will overcome the evil forces by summoning their courage and dealing with the problem head on. For a lot of us, we don’t do that with our fears. We bury them and try to pretend they don’t exist, thereby giving a lot of power to those things to come back and scare the bejeezus out of us the next time. But if we face those fears and make a different decision about them, then we’re going to be able to overcome them and lead a healthier, happier life in the long run.
Courage can come from the strangest places. It doesn’t have to be a big, grandiose deal. It’s just the point at which we decide to take back the personal power that we had previously surrendered to something that used to scare us. Once we make that decision and face the dark parts of our minds, the power those things had drains away and we find that our lives get better. It’s like Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
So, maybe it’s time to embrace the darkness within. Go watch a horror movie and keep an eye out for a chance to kick whatever scares you in the nuts.