Horror as a Universal Power

What is it about horror that is so incredibly powerful? It’s something that many like to avoid, but is attracts people as well: and oftentimes it does both. In part I think it is linked to fear. Fear is a healthy and necessary human emotion: a “danger-sense” to let you know that something isn’t right and that you might want to watch yourself before doing anything foolish: or not doing anything at all. Many old cautionary folktales derive themselves from this ancient impulse: utilizing archetypal images and story-elements to make their points.

This is me basically writing as though I know exactly what I’m talking about. Because I know horror is more than merely fear and it has more than a cautionary function. Aristotle would most likely posit that a story or play created from horror brings out pity and fear in the audience, but that isn’t completely true either because horror doesn’t always bring catharsis: it doesn’t always drain out the pity and the fear. Sometimes it plays with these feelings, increases them and leaves them inside you like a hollow, dark cold spot as you leave the theatre.

Among others, Clive Barker in his short story “Dread” looks at another other aspect of horror. Dread as an emotion is knowing something bad is coming for you, or lurking just over your shoulder and feeling powerless to do anything about it but writhe in a corner. You try to avoid it and it only makes it stronger in you. Dread is fear so internalized into a loop inside a human being that it cannot be resolved: or at least not without considerable effort and willpower.

Yet none of these explanations are enough. Horror is more than just a cautionary genre. It is more than leaving people traumatized and afraid. It is definitely more than embodying something that people try to avoid in vain: only to give it more power over them. Horror has all of these elements to an extent, but I think there is much more to it and I think this is why it has such powerful through its narratives: particularly its universal narratives.

I think horror is a part of the human psyche that is both repulsed by and attracted to what Freud would call “the uncanny.” I also think the uncanny is very much linked to Romanticism and the Gothic’s worship of Nature as a terrifying form of beauty far beyond human understanding. You can argue that when one feels horror–true horror–they blow beyond the limits of their comfort, cultural, and even conscious boundaries into something so weird and still so unknown that it can be positively overwhelming. It uses fear and dread as building blocks to off-set or play with the rational mind enough to connect the animal mind with the infinite darkness that is already there connected to them. Horror is the darkness in us all. The bloody plays of Seneca, the gruesome feast of Thyestes, the ancient dithyrambs of Dionysus and his Maenads all play with this power and instead of providing catharsis–as Aristotle believed tragedy does–it alters the mind by showing the wonders and the terrors of a much greater world.

That above paragraph is a lot of poetic license, I know, but given the nature of this Blog and the subject, I’d like to think it’s at least somewhat appropriate. After writing this and mentioning Clive Barker, I realize why the former’s stories are so effective: in that they really play on the attractive and repulsive aspects of horror. Books of Blood make the very thing the characters fear or dread, or what the reader finds disturbing, attractive in a perverse but natural way. I loved those two books when I read them and I have never looked at the horror genre in the same way again since I did.

Attraction and repulsion towards the uncanny is why we like horror stories. We also like them because they tap into truly universal elements and archetypes inside all of us: the very places some people want to deny the very existence of. Short stories, novels, and films structure horror in a very symmetrical way but before the existences of any of these–before even the ancient rituals of the divine that led to theatre–there were tales and stories told around campfires spreading to other campfires like the wildfire they already were. They are called folktales and horror stories, and in our time now they are called urban legends.

Then there are the stories that exist on the Internet. They are called “creepypastas” and I think this post has gone on long enough and I will write about creepypastas in the next one. I tend to write a lot and I just want to make sure that people will want to read my points this time and not give up because of the length. But soon, I promise, we will talk about creepypastas.

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