Scary Castle Ruin

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The Horror

Why does the horror genre even exist? Why write books to scare people?

One answer is obvious—supply and demand. Millions of fans like to read scary books—not just horror, but thrillers of all stamps that are largely driven by the fear they create. Especially when you factor in film, video games, and other related venues, the market is enormous, and a whole lot of people make their living that way (not just writers, but also on many levels of business and support).

And we all simply love good stories of any kind. They provide entertainment, temporary escape from our often routine lives. They communicate knowledge about the larger world, alert us to actual dangers and things that might benefit us, reaffirm our sense of belonging in society, via similar emotional responses to different people and situations.

Still, there's a deeper issue involved. Why do we like to be scared—especially in horror, by things that don't really exist? Most of us, myself included, much prefer our real lives to be fear-free. We might enjoy a mild thrill now and then, but nothing like the dread and violence that pervade the entertainment world. From a purely rational standpoint, it seems bizarre that we'll avidly seek that out, let alone pay for it.

But of course, humans aren't entirely rational animals—we're full of deep-seated quirks that make life both fascinating and maddening. (My own pet head-scratcher is the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, something I take up in my most recent novel, L.A. Mental.) But I will offer some cheap psychology about our age-old love of spine-tingling stories.

My old friend Jim Crumley, a legendary figure in the mystery writing field, was a very astute man, with a gift for making observations that seemed oblique but nailed the point precisely. A lot of them have stuck with me, and one in particular went: Detective stories are middle-class fairy tales. On the surface, that might seem flippant and even disparaging toward the genre, but not hardly—he loved it, had an encyclopedic knowledge of it, and helped to define it. His meaning lurked deeper.

A lot of fairy tales are genuinely frightening to children (Hansel and Gretel is a classic example), featuring witches, ogres, and other evil figures who threaten a terrible fate. But they end with clear triumph of the little guys—importantly, children themselves—who overcome the monsters through their wits and courage, and live happily ever after.

The parallel to real life isn't hard to see. As kids emerge from infancy and become aware of the larger world, a new realm of fears comes along with it. Even if it's not outright dangerous, it's full of unknowns, strangers who may seem threatening, unwelcome demands, and taboos that may lead to punishment.

Thus, the fairy tales have the function of lessons, with an element of pep talk. They seek to reassure children that they, like their peers in the stories, will overcome the frightening challenges of the big new world they face.

To bring it back around to what Jim Crumley said, the same holds true for adults. We never entirely outgrow our need for reassurance or our longing to be heroes, and our imaginations are still busily at work—we just handle it on a more sophisticated level.

Drama in any form is a particularly powerful means of affecting us psychologically because of our ability for vicarious experience. In a good novel (or movie or play), we're not just reading about the characters—we identify with them and actually become Philip Marlowe or James Bond, Clarice Starling or Tempe Brennan, Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. We might get manhandled, nearly killed, lied to, betrayed, menaced by nightmarish creatures and demonic evil—the entire harrowing gamut of physical and psychological brutality. But in the end, we triumph—even if, as in noir, the victory is bittersweet or edged with tragedy, or if it's only internal. And we've never even had to leave our seats.

In general, this effect is probably strongest in kids (what parent hasn't bought or made props like Cinderella costumes or Star Wars lightsabres?), but adults are also very much prone to it. A good suspense scene can have us digging our fingernails into our chair arms, terrified that the ax is about to fall. We'll clench our fists, pulses racing, during violent action. Erotic scenes—well, no need to belabor the point. But here's an anecdote, from a friend of mine went to see the original Alien when it first came out in 1979. Near the end, when Sigourney Weaver goes looking for the cat and the audience knows the monster is lurking there, the theater went berserk—people were leaping to their feet, throwing popcorn boxes at the screen and screaming at her not to do it. Any writer and/or director who can get a reaction like that (in this case, the late Dan O'Bannon and Ridley Scott) deserves a hats-off for a job superbly done.

Quite a few people consider horror fiction to be both naïve and morbid. Fair enough, although there are some obvious caveats. "Naïve" assumes that readers believe in the genre's evil creatures and trappings, and if they do, fine by me. But actual belief isn't at all necessary to enjoying the stories, just as we don't have to believe in other forms of fantasy to enjoy fare like the wonderful The Lord Of The Rings movies, or futuristic / sci-fi (and I suspect a lot of horror skeptics do both). Instead, we invoke "the willing suspension of disbelief"—we know it's fantasy, but we set that aside and accept the story on its own terms. (The conventional wisdom for writing any fiction that's outside the confines of strict reality is to establish rules that make clear what is and isn't possible in the world being presented, and work within those. Magic, imaginary creatures, life on other planets, etc. are all okay as long as readers feel grounded and the writer doesn't confuse them with sudden changes that don't seem justified.)

All traditional major religions, along with most others, have supernatural beliefs at their core—miracles, good and evil spirits, and many concepts in their theologies. Rational-minded modern adherents may distance themselves from some of those aspects, especially those that seem like holdovers from the more credulous past, but they're still intrinsic; and it's pretty tough to be a Christian without accepting that Christ was resurrected from the dead; or a Jew without accepting the miracles in Genesis and Exodus; or a Muslim without accepting the formative revelation (involving physical contact) that Muhammad received from the Angel Gabriel.

Classical literature is also rife with the supernatural, and not just in the afore-mentioned credulous past. Shakespeare wrote well after the Renaissance brought a sea-change of rational thought, but he used witches and ghosts in his most serious tragedies (and Hamlet's father and Banquo aren't just lightweight window-dressing, but key plot elements), with even the most rigid scholars treating them respectfully. At least a couple of Nobel prize winners have used supernatural themes, along with quite a few of our other best-known names, including some who lived and worked very much in the real world—doctors, soldiers, scholars, adventurers, scientists. (For what it's worth, I was a pre-med at Stanford, and later made my living as a carpenter through thirty years, working outside in many Montana winters and a few blistering Sacramento summers. Not much in the way of dreamy about those venues.)

Mainstream thrillers are generally considered non-supernatural, but the line isn't all that clearcut. Just a few of many examples: Ed McBain is rightly revered for his iconic 87th Precinct police procedurals, featuring tough, no-bullshit big city cops. But in Ghosts, veteran detective Steve Carella encounters both psychic phenomena that he can't explain and a hair-raising vision that's undoubtedly supernatural. Nicholas Conde's bestseller, The Religion (made into the film The Believers) blends hard-core police work with black magic / Obeah, which it treats very seriously. Even in Thomas Harris' books, which are about as grimly realistic as they get, there's a sense that Hannibal Lector is not only more than humanly evil, he also has uncanny mental powers which give him insights into other off-the-charts-creepy killers—and which create the bond between him and Clarice Starling.

As for horror fiction being morbid—again, maybe so. But it's a relative term. While most of us would agree that certain kinds of unpleasantness fall in that category, there are also excellent reasons for digging into life's soft underbelly—FBI agents tracking serial killers, for instance.

The best discussion of this I've ever seen is in William James's great work, The Varieties Of Religious Experience. He makes a distinction between "the religion of healthy-mindedness" and "the sick soul." The first group feels that life should be regarded as positive, with the darker aspects ignored or even denied. The second group is troubled by those dark aspects and feels the need to come to grips with them. The first group regards the second as morbid, looking under rocks and dwelling on the creepy things that come to light. The second regards the first as lightweight, refusing to deal with those creepy realities which, like it or not, affect us all.

Bone PileIn my view, most of us fall somewhere in between, and everybody has their own compass as to naivety, morbidity, and just enjoying a good story.