Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Appeal of Horror

There are many people who are unable to understand the appeal of the horror genre, in spite of the fact that horror has a substantial fan base all over the world. To clarify, I define horror as any type of story (movie, novel, song, etc) written to induce fear and discomfort in the audience for the sake of their entertainment. These critics tend to perceive horror as an excuse to portray senseless acts of violence with excessive amounts of blood and gore. Furthermore, many are of the belief that horror has no artistic or literary value, so any fan of the genre must be a sociopath who's hiding homicidal tendencies.
It's easy to see why one may feel that way, especially when many of these critics don't make it a habit to watch horror films to try and understand the appeal. On the one hand, I agree that horror can and does appeal to the darkest desires hidden deep inside of some individuals, but on the other hand, there are many fans of the horror genre, and with good reason. Horror has the potential to provide value to anyone who embraces it; it doesn't exist simply to profit off the psychopaths among us.

There are a great deal of horror films which focus on the fear that there are highly intelligent and reputable people in our own lives who are capable and willing to do terrible things (and this is one of my favorite concepts in horror), but horror films can be about any subject matter that makes the audience frightened or uneasy. Like any story, every horror story must have been inspired by a concept or idea; most horror exists to make a point, even if there is no clear or strong stance on what that point is. These stories exist to encourage us to face our greatest fears, and evolve. Like any good piece of literature, horror is meant to provoke thought.

Of course, individual fans of horror consume horror differently from one another; they differ in their personal tastes as well as the benefit they gain from reading a horror story or watching a horror film. To give an example of how tastes may differ, let's talk about porn. My understanding is that men and women consume pornography in different ways: women appreciate the sex & nudity, but what really gets them off is the storyline (who are these people and why are they boning in the back of a minivan). I can say from personal experience that men just fast-forward through all the context and dialogue to get to the sex & nudity.
I find that I watch horror films similarly to the way that women watch porn: I enjoy seeing all the gore, but what really gets me off is the story (who are these evil people and why are they terrorizing these victims).

Again, not all fans of horror share my perspective: some people like horror films just because of the scenes that make the audience jump. If many fans of horror share this sentiment-- and I theorize that many fans, in fact, do not view horror the same way I do-- then the appeal of horror could be explained much more simply: it's fun, like a roller coaster. Fear of the unexpected triggers spontaneous emotional responses. This is a valid perspective, as many people (myself included) enjoy watching action or comedy movies as a fun distraction. Nothing wrong that, but I'm of the belief that horror can and should be analyzed.

Saw (2004)
In opposition to the genre, some critics point the finger at horror films such as the "Saw" series and claim it is tasteless gore with no value. In addition to the fears it portrayed, the first "Saw" had a clear point: the Jigsaw killer believes that those who are incapable of appreciating their lives do not deserve to live. However, I am personally unable to defend the other 72 "Saw" movies as having a point, because those were just pandering to the audience. Personally, I am not a fan of the "Saw" series, though I have nothing against the films and I understand their attraction. Gore and violence-- which are most everyone's greatest fears, really-- are part of what makes a horror film a moving and emotional experience. However, gore alone does not always make a movie worth watching, even for hardcore fans like myself.
The "Saw" films are the perfect example of "torture porn," which is a sub-genre of horror. Torture porn, also referred to as "splatter," simultaneously caters to the viewer's fears and primordial desires, and therefore entices a different audience than "general" horror (think of the way people of history have gawked as fellow humans were beaten, beheaded, stoned, crucified, or burnt at the stake). The reason I bring up "Saw" and torture porn is because it's not accurate to assess the entire horror genre from just this sub-genre; that's like someone making the assumption that Black Sabbath is aggressive and heavy-handed after hearing music from two bands in the death metal sub-genre. It's like forming an opinion on the TV show "Friends" after watching a few episodes of "Joey."

To conclude, the general appeal of horror is that it encourages the audience to face their greatest fears directly, in the safety of a controlled, fictional environment. The viewer has the benefit of witnessing their greatest fear, seeing how the protagonist overcomes (or attempts to overcome) that entity/ situation/ event, and walk away thinking about how they may react under similar circumstances. Ultimately, the viewer grows as a human being when they watch a quality horror movie. Horror is meant to be an active movie-going experience, not a passive one.


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