“Why do you like horror so much?”
It’s a question I get a lot. And I do mean a lot. Many people I encounter can’t fathom why someone like me would spend so much time reading, watching, and listening to stories where supernatural forces or sickening characters strike out against innocent victims. And it is a question I have thought about
a lot too.
But maybe the more important question is this: Why don’t you read horror?
Let me make the case for the genre.
That horror has a lot to say for itself became incredibly apparent to me during a book challenge I was doing last year. One of the entries was to be a book set around Halloween, which was perfect for me. Surfing through different message boards for book recommendations, however, I saw that lots of readers were unhappy with the choice of the challenge. Most decried scary stories, saying that they didn’t get why they were being forced to partake in what they saw as a poor reading choice. That definitely got under my skin. I’m not a fan of romance or spy thrillers, but I read them anyway with as open a mind as possible because that’s what reading challenges are supposed to do—open you up to great books you might otherwise overlook.
So I am going to implore you, and hopefully guide you, to explore horror a little more, because there’s no reason that one whole genre should be so maligned.
The biggest misconception is that all horror is scary and designed to make you feel unsettled or to leave you wide awake at night, fearing every creak and groan and flickering light. In fact, horror is as broad a genre as any other. Want to laugh at spooky things? Horror-comedy is a real subgenre, such as the John Dies at the End series by David Wong. Prefer things to be more grounded? Thrillers often use horror elements to make the “real” world more palpable, such as Caroline Kepnes’s You. Don’t want to be on this planet anymore? Cosmic horror and sci-fi horror are just two styles that will get you looking to the stars where no one can hear you scream: consider Dahlia Black by Keith Thomas and The Tommyknockers by Stephen King.
Sometimes books are categorized in the horror genre just because they feature typical horror creatures such as vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and other ghouls. Other styles of horror, like Gothic, are less about blood and guts and more about atmosphere and mood, such as The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, both enduring stories. Some are more concrete with what it is to fear, as in I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, while others are more mysterious and subtle: think Michael McDowell’s classic The Elementals.
But enough about the breadth of the field. Let’s talk about what you might get out of it.
I think the most important thing that I take away from reading horror is that everything is surmountable and survivable. Sure, there are plenty of horror stories where the protagonists die, but there are just as many, if not more, where they make it through. Life is hard, no one is going to tell you otherwise, but horror doesn’t present escapism that comes easy. It asks you to follow the emotional and physical journeys of characters, often to feel what they are going through, or otherwise to stand juxtaposed to the horrible things they are doing or seeing. By the end, it can feel like you have been to hell and back, which might not be “fun,” but is still fulfilling, enriching, and thought-provoking.
Horror can also be a space for readers and authors alike to work through fear, trauma, and anxiety in a safe and controlled environment. You can always choose to put a book down, skip pages, come back to a story later, or avoid (or seek out) stories altogether that deal with specific topics. Do you really think I haven’t thrown a book across a room when things got too intense? There is a dent in my bedroom wall from A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay, and yet I still count it among my absolute favorite books.
Do I enjoy feeling scared? Sometimes. As I said, life is hard and fear often plays a part in that. But things don’t get less scary just because you don’t engage with them—often, it is just the opposite. Horror, too, has a depreciating value. Once you understand why something is scary, once the monster comes into the light, once you see it for what it truly is, it’s a lot easier to not be afraid. Scary reads can peel back the mask on the monster to reveal what it is we’re really afraid of, whether that be external forces or our own potential for evil or something else. And sure, maybe you just want to read something airy and fluffy like a fine soufflé, but there’s nothing wrong with going in for the dense and dark chocolate cake sometimes too.
But let’s be real here, no matter what my reasons are for reading horror, lots of readers have their own reasons for delving into the dark. Maybe they love that adrenaline rush, or maybe they were born fearless and nothing shakes them. Maybe it’s therapeutic, or maybe it is their definition of fun. Whatever your reason ends up being, I hope my highly passionate, maybe slightly too nerdy rant has convinced you to give horror a real try, even if you’re scared. Who knows, you might be braver (or less spooked) than you thought you would be.