What is it about horror? We’ve had it as part of our lives since… well, forever. I mean that literally. Look at the first recorded art — cave paintings. They weren’t about that one time when Cavedude got a shiny rock from Mrs. Cavedude, or about the time they had a nice romantic night away from the Cavekids, or that one time when he had a really good day where nothing much happened and there was no fire from the sky or T-rexes eating his foot or anything like that.
No, they were about Death. And yes, I meant it with a capital “D.”
They glorified animals (man among them) killing and being killed. Blood was central, and copious.
Many of the animals also feature incredibly large genitalia, which is kinda horrific for different reasons — but I digress.
Point is: we are born with a seed of horror inside. Born in blood, our first sounds screams of terror — ironically, as we leave the darkness and first experience the light. Horror is our first emotion on this earth, and the roots of that terror never quite die. We grow, and fear the night… because, at first, we don’t even have the required knowledge to know this terrifying, lonely time will ever end.
Then we learn the night does end, but now we wonder what it hides.
We grow, and fear of the dark — of what lurks within its shadowed depths — transforms to fear of the “rational” world: what if I lose my job? What if she leaves me? What if I someday die?
The last is silly, since death is sure to come to all of us. But still, many of us have that reality as a central — terrifying — theme in our lives.
Horror flogs us through life. Terror beats with every pulse of our doomed hearts. And what do we do about it?
We watch Insidious. We read Pet Sematary. We view art and media that can only be viewed as disturbing, terrifying.
We spend our lives hiding from the darkness, turning on the light before we take that first step into the basement (and who among us hasn’t had that fear, if only for a moment, that THIS will be the time something is down there, that THIS will be the moment we feel the claws and are dragged down to devil-only-knows where?).
And then, after turning on all the lights, putting the cops on speed dial, and carefully laying a golf club and some holy water next to our bed (just in case!), what do we do? We flock with friends to a darkened theater, to experience just what we so carefully avoided.
People of contradictions, people who yearn for light, for hope… but who also find themselves sometimes — strangely — at home in the dark.
And there, I think, lies the answer: we are people. People of hope, of despair, of light, of dark, of joy… and horror.
Every one of us has an innate fear of doing wrong, seeking wrong, being somehow… wrong. And horror feeds those thoughts, those concerns. Sometimes for good, sometimes for ill.
But what all horror does — at least, when it’s doing its job — is it holds up a mirror. Not to our evil, not to the terrors that hound us through our nights and lives. No, it holds up a mirror to our whole selves. To the entirety of our humanity. To our hopes, to the fears that can dash them.
And, in the very best cases, to the redemption that we all seek.
I’m not talking about redemption in the religious sense — or at least, not necessarily. Though any careful readers of many of the masters — King and Koontz in particular — will note how often their plots climax in the infinite moment where people realize there is a greater power, or where God Himself all but steps down from his throne to save the main characters: to vicariously save all of us.
No, what I mean when I say horror is about redemption is something more basic. Less nuanced, but perhaps as critical as any strictly religious belief or dogma. The word “redeem” has its roots in Latin — “imere” which means “to purchase.” And all horror is about the purchases we make in life — for good or for ill.
When we make bad choices in a horror novel or movie, we tend to purchase an equally — or more — bad ending. The masked man hacks us in two. The cunning killer eats our face. The prophetess (that link to God again!) touches us and makes us dwindle away to nothing.
And when we make good choices we tend to purchase survival, a future. We earn a state of grace — which itself has interesting roots: it means grace, kindness, respect.
Respect. Respect for ourselves. Respect for the world — not taming it, but being carefully aware that there is more to the universe than us, that there is more to life than life itself. We know there is danger, we respect its power. But therein lies that grace: respect is something we grant to an equal, not to a superior. Respect is something that nods to the value of another thing, but does not scrape or beg or plead.
We read horror to be reminded that there are choices. That there are other choices being made at the same time, and some of those will lead to our harm. That our further choices determine how we are affected. And that, if we make the best possible choices, we will achieve a state of harmony, a sense of balance.
A way to cope with our own humanity.
We are born to blood, but yes, we are also sent directly into the light at that same moment. That first breath is to scream, but that first breath is also to live. There is an equality, a duality, an opposition present in every moment of life.
There is love… but people grow apart.
There is help… but people also make war upon one another.
There is hope… but the monsters do lurk. And have their own dark hopes for us.
And so we read horror. These sensibilities pervade the best horror, and manage to teach us neither of false perfection nor of base damnation. They show us both.
And then let us make a choice.
So why? Why do we love horror so much?
The answer, in sum, is simple: we love horror because the greatest horrors are us. And we need to be reminded of that fact from time to time so that we may also become more.
The best horror drives us into the Pit. It cuts away all that we think we are and leaves only what is the essence of our soul behind.
And then shows that that soul, that most basic identity, is enough to climb back to the light again.