“What’s your favorite scary movie?”
Every year, as the air gets chilly and the leaves turn gorgeous shades of red and yellow, Ghostface’s iconic question returns to the top of our cultural discourse. Though for some autumn might just mean sweaters and pumpkin spice, plenty of people embrace the spookier parts of the season. We plan our Halloween costumes, visit haunted attractions, and watch—and rewatch—horror movies. But would anyone name fear as their favorite emotion? So why is it that we continue to create, consume, and even love horror? The shocking thing about horror might be what the fears we choose to cultivate reveal about us—and our relationship to the world we live in.
Humans seem inherently attracted to things that scare them. Beyond “scary” and “creepy,” another common descriptor for horror movies is the word “disturbing.” Horror, quite simply, makes terrible things happen. As tensions rise and victims fall to some monstrous entity, we squirm in our seats. It seems that every new horror movie since The Exorcist has boasted that it has viewers fainting, vomiting, and/or walking out of the theater.
Is there anything pleasant about stories like these, other than the adrenaline rush? Perhaps the negative emotions horror conjures up are the ultimate escape from our daily lives: The anxiety and dread we bottle up are redirected and released with every jumpscare. The acute discomfort actually could end up being comforting. In an evolutionary sense, humans are afraid of the unknown and seek familiarity. Creepy urban legends and folklore have been a part of storytelling traditions since they began, and in every region, you can probably find a variation on a vampire or a werewolf. Mexico and South Korea are among the biggest horror fans, even when compared to the United States and Canada. From Japan’s widely–read horror manga (like the works of Junji Ito) to Latin America’s growing canon of horror literature written by women, the genre is strikingly widespread in its popularity. Horror also occupies a space in our cultural memory for nearly our entire lives. I personally grew up watching movies like Coraline and Monster House, and some of my most vivid childhood memories are the ghost stories older kids would tell me, swearing that this happened to their very own uncles or cousins or neighbors. If you listened closely around the campfire, or read as many scuffed and dog–eared Goosebumps paperbacks as I did, you, too, knew the allure of fear, even as a third–grader.
Horror has many different subgenres, ranging from psychological, paranormal, and slasher to alien, haunted house, and found footage films. Once you’ve seen a few, certain patterns become evident. According to the Scream franchise, there are three rules to surviving a horror movie: never have sex; never drink or do drugs; and never say, “I’ll be right back.”
Viewers quickly learn to anticipate these familiar conventions. The most important of these archetypes is the horror movie’s monster, or the villain that attacks the order of our victims’ lives and the society in which they live.
Scholar Stephen Greenblatt has proposed that fiction generally tends to follow patterns of subversion and containment, or, in other words, the status quo and disrupting force. Subversion is when human peace is put under threat—in the case of horror, by a demon, a serial killer. This is a resistance to societal order and mainstream culture, easily recognizable when the “rules” we follow are completely bent out of shape by inhuman forces. “Containment” arrives when the story ends with a return to order: Alongside the narrative closure of the story, the danger is ultimately defeated, bringing comfort to the viewer or reader. For example, at the end of each Scooby–Doo episode, the villain is caught by those “meddling kids,” unmasked to reveal a person motivated by revenge or greed, and viewers are reassured that the world is working as it should.
But some of the most famous and popular horror movies stray from these conventions; there isn’t always an unmasking. The monster can really, truly, be a monster—or, really, could have been some tragic mix of human and monster all along. Viewers might take comfort in knowing there’s a man beneath the costume because they carry a certain amount of faith in human beings. But maybe it’s more disturbing that people just like ourselves can commit these crimes. Midsommar, one of the most talked–about and thoroughly discomfiting horror movies of the past five years, is entirely without a supernatural element: It's fundamentally about people and the evil of which they are capable. Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, American Psycho, Creep, and, of course, Scream are other examples. Our fear leaves the boogeyman and becomes directed at the strangers we meet on the street, maybe even the friends and family we think we know. It turns out that perhaps the most frightening unknown is other people.
The systems around us can also be the thing that turns on us. At the same time as horror can strongly reinforce norms, it can also produce the most visceral critiques. The genre’s fundamental access to legitimized portrayals of violence makes it a dangerous and useful tool. Jordan Peele’s three feature films so far—Get Out, Us, and Nope—have dealt fundamentally with issues of race, class, and exploitation. One of my favorite zombie outbreak films, Train To Busan, is an emotionally–charged critique of capitalism. The Invisible Man and Watcher both highlight female trauma in a society disinclined to believe women. And these are all just relatively recent examples; though like any genre, horror often perpetuates a flawed culture, it also prods at those flaws.
Great horror leaves us with healthy, thought–provoking fears even after the credits have rolled. The story isn’t isolated to its place on screen, but rather makes us think about our own reality—perhaps one without werewolves or UFOs or poltergeists, but still with its own horrors. It’s often said that “art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”—and what better genre to do so than horror? This Halloween, let’s contemplate not only Ghostface’s essential question, but what might be behind his mask, and the mask of all fiction—and humanity.