Every single person has encountered fear at some point in life. Human beings have always known fear. It is an unfortunate side effect of being alive. Some of fears are rooted in the physical; we are all afraid of bodily injury, disease, and our eventual deaths. Other fears are woven into the existential; we fear loneliness, insignificance, the loss of the control, and retribution for past sins. In some form or another, fear creeps into our thoughts and drives our actions.
Fear has always been with us. To paraphrase Lovecraft, fear was the first emotion and is the most powerful.
Of all the art grappling with this emotion, none so perfectly captures humanity’s relationship with fear as horror. This seems to go without saying. It’s not news that horror deals confronts our deepest individual fears. It’s no secret that horror also mirror the fears of human society, transcending or exposing differences based on a host of factors including gender, race, class, ethnicity, politics, and nationality. Horror succeeds precisely because it openly acknowledges fear.
But do we need to be watching such films and reading such books? Do we really need more reminders that the world is a scary place? Is it not enough that awful stories bombard me from all sides—the 24-hour news cycle, news alerts on phones, social media? Don’t we absorb enough terrible images and read enough about humanity’s capacity for monstrous activity? What is the point in willfully subjecting oneself to scary stories?
Simply put, though the news shows real events that have happened to real people in real time, it’s easy to maintain psychological distance. It’s easy to change the channel. It’s easy to switch over to Facebook. It’s easy to say, That won’t happen to me, that’s not my life.
But a story, dressed up in theatrics and disguised in an outlandish premise, invites to stay. It worms into your brain and holds your attention. Stories lowers your defenses. Stories make it easier to listen.
There is no doubt that immeasurable value lies in confronting what makes us afraid. Through the horror genre, we are challenged to confront ourselves, even if fake blood and gore obscure the truth. No other genre has the same capacity to cut through our defenses and get right to the darkness in our hearts. Without the introspection that horror offers, we would be nothing but slaves to our insecurities and fears. We would be unable to grow as human beings. We would be unable to truly enjoy life.
We would be ghosts.
We need horror because that is one of the best ways we can understand ourselves. As Stephen King put it, “We need ghost stories because we are ghosts.”