To Suffer This World or Illuminate Another? On the Meanings and Uses of Horror

In his interesting book-length meditation, Danse Macabre (1981), Stephen King posited the following theory regarding the intrinsic and perennial appeal of Horror:

Why do you want to make up horrible things when there is so much real horror in the world?

The answer seems to be that we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.

Quite appropriately for somebody with a such royal name, in that passage King effectively gave us the One Theory to Rule Them All, the one idea that would become the ready response to questions about the intrinsic and perennial appeal of Horror. Countless creators and consumers of such entertainment have regurgitated King’s logic over the past three decades, to the point where it has become a convenient catchall that any Horror fan can brandish whenever his or her morbid predilections are called into question. Why Horror art? Because our souls need boot-camp training to toughen us up for when real life comes a-calling, of course!

Simple? Yes. Memorable? Certainly. Useful? Absolutely. But is it accurate?

Although I am an admirer of many of Stephen King’s works, I confess to finding his logic here deeply suspect. The underlying implication of this theory is that Horror is a healthy, even a socially responsible, pastime: no need to worry if your great-aunt Tilly furrows her brow at your movie night selection. Just inform her that the cannibal frenzy she’ll be enduring in lurid, extreme close-ups for the next ninety minutes is for her own good, because it’s steeling her nerves for tomorrow’s lineup at the DMV.

The mind reels at such an absurd imagining. So violently, in fact, that the experience of it raises a fundamental question about the theory at hand, to wit: Does Horror art in any medium truly help us cope with life? And more importantly, must it? Does it require a purpose beyond serving us a delicious tide of frisson and grue? Surely even the genre’s most sophisticated examples cannot honestly be considered life lessons. Or then again, can they?

I’ve been consuming Horror for most of my life, and yet I cannot cite a single instance where the genre has bolstered me against the pains of the world. Attending the funerals of loved ones, trying to stay financially afloat, watching the world’s weather patterns assume ever-stranger and fiercer forms — none of these has been eased or made more comprehensible because of postmodern ghost stories or the oiled monstrosities of Bosch. But if Horror, while boring a bit deeper than most other forms of entertainment, still does precious little to aid the life strategies and situations of its readers and viewers, then what precisely does it do? Why do we, its practitioners and fans, continue to crash its cemetery gates year after year and generation after generation?

In his essay “The Consolations of Horror” (1982; found in The Nightmare Factory), Thomas Ligotti considers the theory of Horror-as-life-and-death-prep and finds it not just decidedly insufficient but fundamentally off-target. If people want to argue that the genre has prepared them for life, he challenges them to

Try drawing solace from your half-dozen viewings of The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre when they’re prepping you for brain surgery.

And there, friends, is the rub. For there is no consolation to be found for such a horrifying experience in such a horrifying film. The formula breaks down. The equation does not equate. The data do not compute. Between real-life horror and fictional/artistic Horror there is found not only a complete absence of beneficial symbiotic relationship but, when push comes to shove and scalpel meets flesh, a complete lack of any kind of meaningful relationship at all.

This leads us to a variation on our original query: if Horror has no discernible relevance to anything besides itself, then does that mean it intrinsically has no relevance at all?

The very question arises in the face of the fact that the genre continues to broach themes that seem relevant in the conventional sense, as in — to name just one example — the many smart readings of various films, stories, and books that bring out ostensibly political subtexts. And truly, a lot of entries in the genre have the appearance of such lessons for their shrewder audience members to glean. But I suggest that even these elements are little more than set dressings: a false subtext that the creator has (perhaps unwittingly) inserted in order to convince him- or herself that the whole exercise is more than just an empty reveling in abundant morbidity.

But I think a more accurate framing of the situation is to see the creator as someone who acts as an usher, who gently nudges us into a world that is at first, for all intents and purposes, mimetic. It is our world. We know this place. And yet there is a whiff of the uncanny about things. The scenery hangs slightly askew. There may be eyes watching us. This dollop of eeriness hardly sours the mix; if anything, it serves as the charnel perfume that intoxicates our inner ghoul. And if such speculations seem questionable, then consider this: when was the last time that you, presumably a reader of Horror fiction, slammed a book shut because your love of this world was too great to allow you to endure the mayhem that inevitably lies in store for the characters?

More often than not, our reaction is the polar opposite, isn’t it? We read on or sink more cozily into our theatre seats, following that ever-thickening thread of Horror like hounds in a foxhunt. We have caught the scent of Otherness just around the bend, and so we wait with bated breath to see how the creator will unfurl his or her revelation for us. How will this particular narrative peel back the blemish-less skin of apparent reality? When shall we be swept up in a symphony of coffin lids creaking open from the inside, of chandeliers clinking within vacant mansions, of howls from a moonlit wood?

And once this revel begins, is it not glorious? We know that for a certain span of time we will be swept up by this music of awfulness, and in this knowledge, some primordial inkling is satisfied: the hunch that these dramas have nothing truly to do with the world we’ve created for ourselves. Instead, the supernatural tale reveals a bigger world, a numinous and bewildering world, a world that was not designed to serve us. We bask in a draft of this world that runs beneath or behind the one we recognize, and we watch in near-delirium as this bigger world, which we recognize but so rarely experience in anything but the most subtle hint, suddenly rears its ugly head and swallows our comfortable, familiar world whole.

Perhaps this might represent a more honest statement of the interrelation between Horror and the world: not that Horror teaches us the ways of the world, but that it allows us to experience the paradoxical relief and dread of seeing our civilization rent to pieces by the bigger world it was designed to displace. For in principle, are we so different from the Puritans who put up fences to distinguish civilization from the unbridled, bewildering, uncaring wilderness that seemed so unwilling to yield to our wishes?

“Not that Horror teaches us the ways of the world, but that it allows us to experience the paradoxical relief and dread of seeing our civilization rent to pieces by the bigger world it was designed to displace.”

But all of this still does not answer the overarching question at hand: why?

Let us return to Thomas Ligotti’s essay, right at the point where he takes up this very theme:

Why, though, why?

Just to do it, that’s all. Just to see how much unmitigated weirdness, sorrow, desolation and cosmic anxiety the human heart can take and still have enough heart left over to translate these agonies into artistic forms.

[…] This, then, is the ultimate, that is only, consolation: simply that someone shares some of your own feelings and has made of these a work of art which you have the insight, sensitivity, and — like it or not — peculiar set of experiences to appreciate.

So there we have it. King’s theory may be the more crowd-pleasing, but Ligotti’s is, in my opinion, the sounder one. At its purest, the supernatural Horror story is not an offering of life lessons that your brain can decipher and then utilize for leading a more productive and less painful existence. Rather, it is an amplification of those private, rarely uttered impressions of lurking nightmare that you yourself have had at one time or another. It is not about undergoing an initiation into the world of our making. It is a descent or transition into the nonhuman realm of nocturnal wilderness, even if that wilderness is located solely within our skulls.

Seeing our private anxieties stretched to a hideous scale, hearing our private wishes shrieked to the far walls of the icy cosmos, may be just about the only consolation, the only “value,” that Horror can offer.

For a spell, images of dread and otherness are free to run amok. . . at least until the tale is told, at which point our lycanthropic impulses nestle back down into the cool dark dens of our subconscious. We rise from our reading chairs or exit our climate-controlled neighbourhood cinema and return to the world, not much wiser but a bit more satisfied, for we know that somebody else out there is screaming inside, somebody else knows that, to borrow a lyric from Leonard Cohen, the deal is rotten. We are aware, painfully aware, that there is something more going on in the wilderness we keep behind our fences and beneath our lawns. But that something is often ineffable. It is not there “for” us. We did not create it, and it does not exist to serve man, no matter how much we may want it to. All we have is the world we have made for ourselves, the pale grey bogus world that we know to be a veneer.

And so we return to this world, to the very place we relished seeing destroyed, contaminated, and poisoned in our most recent Horror parade. Not to worry; though; our anxieties will once again reach the boiling point soon enough, at which time we can reach for the black-bound book or select the apt DVD from our neatly alphabetized library of mayhem.

Let us enjoy our consolations when, and while, we can.

Image: “Magical Level – Level of Miracles” by h.koppdelaney under Creative Commons

About Richard Gavin

Richard Gavin is the author of CHARNEL WINE, OMENS, THE DARKLY SPLENDID REALM, and AT FEAR'S ALTAR. He has been praised by Publishers Weekly and hailed as a master of numinous horror fiction in the tradition of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and H.P. Lovecraft. S.T. Joshi calls him "one of the bright new stars of contemporary weird fiction." Richard lives in Ontario, Canada.

Posted on November 12, 2012, in Echoes from Hades and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Hi. Thanks very much for this piece. I was directed to your site by a mutual acquaintance. I had asked him about horror, as I don’t “get” it, on a fundamental level. I do not consume it, at all. I am, appropriately, horrified by it. He wrote, “It’s nothing more than looking into the shadow side of existence, understanding mortality, and enjoying macabre-induced shivers.”

    I don’t enjoy macabre-induced shivers. In fact, I’m profoundly disturbed by them and by the fact that others do enjoy them. While I am well aware that macabre media doesn’t equate to scary people, I still really don’t get what it is about it that you like. Even stuff like Ray Bradbury’s darker, earlier work creeps me out, and I love him in general. When I read his story compilations, I find myself skipping certain stories due to that component. Needless to say, I avoid King, Lovecraft, Tarantino, etc etc etc. I read a couple Stephen King books as a teenager and never wanted to read anything by him again. When I see people with violent, bloody Halloween costumes, I shudder and think to myself “why the fuck would you want to appear like that?”, even though I totally get that it’s the overarching theme of the holiday. Obviously, I avoid all horror/gory movies like the plague. I’m the guy who asks the video store folks to move the horror section so it’s not at 3-year-old eye level (my request was disdainfully declined).

    When I saw this post, I was hoping for a deeper insight into the mind of the horror fan. However, that didn’t happen, as you quite thoughtfully explore. I appreciate that you examined the reasons many have put forth and discarded them. Interesting.

    It seems that when it comes down to it, there’s not much more than “I like this and I don’t know why” when it comes to horror. You write “once this revel begins, is it not glorious?” Not to me. No way. And that’s what I’m so curious about. Maybe it’s just a difference in sensitivity among individuals?

    I’ve been appreciating reading your blog, and look forward to any other introspective pieces you post on why horror is appealing. I don’t see myself ever choosing to read or watch any, but I remain fascinated by its appeal.

    • Nodrog,

      I really appreciate the fact that you not only took the time to read my essay but also post this honest comment, particularly because the genre in question is one in which you have no interest.

      I think “a difference in sensitivity among individuals” is as sound a logic as any for why some people enjoy Horror while others do not.

      In fact, I would say that your stance reinforces one of the points of my essay; namely that the Horror fan is not neccessarily braver or any better equipped to negotiate the world than the person who has no interest in Horror whatsoever. And while I do believe that pushing one’s self out of one’s comfort zone is a healthy and productive thing to do, such a practice can only be done by the individual. If you are not a Horror fan, forcing you to choke down a volume of gruesome stories because “you need to learn these lessons” would be a fruitless, empty, even cruel, endeavor. We each have to cut our own path through this wilderness in our own way.


  2. Hmmm…I dunno…

    If the consolation is:

    “…we know that somebody else out there is screaming inside, somebody else knows that, to borrow a lyric from Leonard Cohen, the deal is rotten.”

    doesn’t that very validation, in and of itself, help us cope? Isn’t, then, this just a matter of semantics? I find the fact that I’m not alone in thinking about traumatic events or the nothingness to come to be extremely therapeutic.

    Perhaps horror is gratifying because it dares to take issue with the unspoken consensus that All is Well and Life is a Good Thing and There’s No Reason to Despair. (This may also be why horror has often been acquainted with the subversive and transgressive; horror breaks the taboo against pointing out unsolvable problems with the human condition — for example, the reality that every human life ends with a brain that says “breathe” and lungs that say “no”.)

    Modern American culture, in particular, tends to place expectations on us that we keep our head up and smile, smile, smile. We are a radically death-denying culture. We have taken as many pains as possible to remove ourselves from seeing the dead and the dying. And when we do interact with the dead and the dying, we spin tales suggesting they’ve automatically been zoomed up to a pleasure-filled paradise.

    (Hell, even the Medieval Christians mostly believed that there was a waiting period, that the dead stayed asleep until Judgment Day, when they’d all come out of their graves and meet their maker…our modern interpretation has sped things up considerably.)

    And yet, despite all this avoidance…we know people die. As a culture, we avoid it. And, like anything traumatic that’s avoided very long, it takes on a life of it’s own.

    Perhaps, in this way, horror is a safety valve. A means to express that which can’t be expressed in polite society, due to our rigid culture. And, yes, I think that this helps us cope — if only in a subtle way.

    • Nicole,

      Thank you for your excellent response.

      Does Horror help me “cope”? Perhaps, but only in the pleasure it provides, in the exercise it gives my subconscious; for ultimately the supernatural terror tale is the subconscious communicating with the subconscious. At its core, it is deliciously illogical. The waking, conscious world may be there as set-dressing, but as I said in my essay, ultimately we wish to see the hidden consume the seen, or to use Machen’s terminology, to experience the Real behind the veil.

      This, to me, is the weird tale’s import, its meaning. The Horrors it presents are interior ones. They are not reflections of the external world, but amplificiations of the sublte, interior state that would otherwise remain immaterial. This is why I reject the interdependency of “real life horrors” on “fictional horrors.”

      Yes, the genre may remind people that pain and death are realities, but I suggest that anyone who has lived into adulthood needs no reminders about this things. They’ve faced them full-on. But even if the dominant culture glosses over them, the great irony here, Nicole, is that the people who live in this state of denial are likely to avoid darker entertainment as well, wouldn’t you agree?

      Given that, as I asked in my essay, what then is the Horror fan getting? Surely not the splash of cold water that our death-denier would. The macabrist is getting something else, perhaps what M.R. James refererd to as “a pleasing terror.”

      Ultimately I reject the notion that supernatural Horror needs or intrinsically has a functional life purpose. It is not utilitarian, no matter how much we may wish it to be. But just because it has no “practical” use does not mean that it is useless.

      A nightmare is completely illogical, otherworldly and rife with impossible feats, yet when we are immersed within its depths, are we not palpably affected by it? The same priniple applies here: we may look to Freud to “explain” our nightmare to us, but ultimately these insights will do nothing to aid us when we are in the thick of the nightmare experience.


  3. I love this article. I’ve often thought of writing about the different approaches of King and Ligotti to the value of horror. But you actually did it. Cheers.

  4. A truly excellent piece, Richard.

    I could try to wax philosophical with a response to your essay, particularly this:

    “Ultimately I reject the notion that supernatural Horror needs or intrinsically has a functional life purpose. It is not utilitarian, no matter how much we may wish it to be. But just because it has no “practical” use does not mean that it is useless.”

    But instead, I will note that I and most likely many others enjoy dark fiction and dark art (different than the Dark Arts) of many sorts for the simple fact that it appeals to our tastes, and is, in a word, “cool.”

    How do you explain the why of what you find cool, and what you find unappealing and/or boring?

    There might be a deeper psychological reason behind it, but to me, something either resonates or it doesn’t, based on the quirks and desires of our personalities, by the measurements of our essential salts.

    As you so rightly note, King uttered something that sells (much like his books), and has the whiff of truth on the surface, but it doesn’t really get to the less defined heart of the matter, which is more complicated, and possibly less helpful and profound.

    I think you are heading in the right direction, Richard. Humans love escapism and fantasy. What offers this better than real monsters, living shadows, and the conquering of Death?

  5. I agree with most of this article, save for a few points. Firstly, I think that Ligotti’s answer is a cop out, or at least a retreat from the true heart of the question. His answer to “why horror” seems to be “because people want to know that other people feel horror,” yet this doesn’t address the reason that emotion is there to begin with. Secondly, I don’t think the political element to horror can be so summarily discounted.

    The suffering of the characters might be necessary to keep the story’s pacing and a sense of jeopardy, but the beating heart of any work of horror is an unresolved (perhaps unresolvable) source of anxiety that we, the consumers, have to push to the backs of our minds in order to function in the world each day. Concrete terrors help give us catharsis against ephemeral terrors in the abstract and far-removed realms of our lives.

    The “paradoxical relief and dread of seeing our civilization rent to pieces by the bigger world it was designed to displace” is only a paradox if you do not acknowledge that civility is, itself, an illusion, a put-on that we all buy into, implicitly, in order to produce works greater than ourselves. How many of us would willingly go to our daily grind if we we awoke each morning with the terror of knowing that each throb of our hearts might be our last? That our pulse is a ticking second hand on a clock run on cheap batteries?

    As you say, a consumer of horror engages with the question, “How will this particular narrative peel back the blemish-less skin of apparent reality?”

    Horror is an exercise in giving the conscious mind license to examine the concealed fears of the subconscious, whether they be infantile (object permanence vs. ghost stories) or societal (viral media and The Ring). Successful horror has always been an echo chamber for the subconscious (or subsocietal) fears which we suffer in the present. Subsequently, the things which we fear cannot be separated from our ideologies, and therefore it is folly to outright reject any political or ideological underpinnings within a work of horror–global warming, terrorism, pollution, racism, nuclear holocaust–as nothing more than a fascade or veneer over the work as a whole.

    That this anxiety comes from concrete sources in our shared experience of the world seems to suggest (to me, at least) that our desire for horror isn’t just a product of some base, generalized hunger for the morbid. Rather, morbidity itself is just the reflection of one more unresolved fear which, like all fears, some individuals feel a nagging compulsion to address.

    I think that those of particularly anxious temperaments are more interested in (and subject to) horror, because their psyches lack some facility for the exhaustion of interest in danger, an aptitude for hypervigilance. For these individuals, there IS a catharsis there. We seek (perhaps vainly) for an answer in the hero’s success or failure, to finally close the book on the thing we fear and relegate it to the subconscious once and for all, as being hopeless or ultimately surmountable. Yet these fears will never be satisfactorily defeated, and so we horror aficionados come back again and again and again, to our old favorite fears or newer, more exacting ones

    Freud believed that by suppressing our inner fears and desires, they boil up and intensify, and so our symbols of horror must be intensified to match their emboldened counterparts within ourselves. As you say, “our anxieties will once again reach the boiling point soon enough, at which time we can reach for the black-bound book or select the apt DVD from our neatly alphabetized library of mayhem.”

    Like I said, I mostly agree with what you wrote here, but I think it’s out of place to discount the political.

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