Monsters in the Closet -- Relief Through Horror Fiction

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In Katherine Ramsland's "Psychology of Horror and Fantasy," Ramsland asserts that people read and watch horror and fantasy because they want to get away from their own personal feelings of isolation.  She states that it also makes us "humane."

I cannot support her thesis.  My reason for this is that liking horror is in itself a social act.  Readers flock to buy the newest Stephen King novel.  Teenagers thrive on swarming, in groups, to movie theaters to watch the fifteenth installment of the Saw franchise.  If the mere pulling away from "the demanding and equivocal isolation of being individuals" (Williamson 126) were what drove us to enjoy horror, then the same could be said about The Hangover (how many of us went to the flick with five of our closest friends?), the circus (don't we go on school trips there?) and church?  All of these things make us feel like part of a community while making us see our own humanity (laughter! elephants! religion!).  Ramsland, however, implies that this feeling is limited to horror and fantasy fiction.

If Ramsland is wrong, then, why do people enjoy horror?  People enjoy horror because it shows that they have finally overcome the demons they had as children.

No time in life (assuming you live a relatively normal, horror-free existence) is as horrific as childhood.  Think back to your own childhood.  What were you afraid of?  Strangers? The dark?  Monsters under your bed?

In my own life, I can recall one very specific and terrifying event.  For about 48 hours, a local radio station broadcast one single statement, "Beware, it's coming."  This was said in a loud, rough voice with ominous music playing in the background.  As a 5 or 6 or 7 year old, I thought that this meant aliens were coming to earth and were going to kill us all.  I didn't sleep for two nights.  Then, after 48 hours of sheer terror, it was discovered that the radio station was changing over to a new talk radio/pop music format.

Looking back now, I see how silly and innocent I was.  Just think, I thought aliens were going to destroy the earth!  I'm now a far cry from that child.  I wouldn't be scared like that anymore, yet part of that fear remains.  Just like part of your fear remains.  Do you still shy away from strangers on the street?  Do you still shudder when the electricity goes off and you can't see?  Do you still cringe when you hear an unexpected noise come from your closet?

When we read horror novels, we are saying that those demons from our childhood can't affect us anymore.  Take for example, the stories, "The Sandman," "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "Dread."  Each of these stories deals with things that children fear.

How many children have been scared by tales that the Sandman is coming if they don't go to bed?  As adults, those scared children realize that the Sandman was nothing more than a tool used by parents who want their children to sleep (whether it's the scary one of ETA Hoffman's creation or The Chordettes' dream maker).  However, adults still remember that fear, and they shudder thinking about what if the Sandman were real.  In "The Sandman," that fear came true, and ended up killing the very person haunted by the Sandman.

Other children probably lived in fear of getting caught for doing something bad.  Perhaps they broke their mother's vase or kicked their sisters in the shins.  In the case of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," what is the protagonist afraid of?  He (she) is afraid of getting caught by the police for a very bad deed.

Some children are even afraid of clowns.  Many birthday parties were spent in tears because of it.  Now imagine Clive Barker's "Dread."  This time the "clown" isn't wielding flowers that squirt water, he's wielding an ax!

All these things terrified us as children.  That terror, though lessened, still lingers in the back of our minds (I'm predisposed to thinking that aliens, if they exist, are evil and want to destroy the world).  We read horror to reinforce that we don't need to be scared of those things anymore.

Laurell K. Hamilton recently gave an interview to Entertainment Weekly (issue 1059).  She was asked why vampires were appealing.  She responded "It's a way to be very scared... and still be safe.  You're sitting in your favorite chair, with hot cocoa, and when you close the book, your world is still there.  You're safe."

Much like we ran to our parents' bedroom to sleep or had our dads shine flashlights under the bed to prove there were no monsters, we use books to soothe us.  Closing that books says, "Don't worry, it was all make believe!  The world is normal and you're safe."

4 Comments

Matt Duvall said:

Hey, there's a list of most common childhood fears at http://www.lifespan.org/services/childhealth/parenting/fears.htm. Radio station format change ranked #19.

KL Grady said:

Natalie - This argument against Ramsland's idea makes a lot of sense - the horror and fantasy genres don't have the corner on ridding readers of the sense of isolation.

I hadn't considered the childhood fears that threaded through the three stories this week. Nice job!

Also, great quote from Hamilton. She nailed one of the main reasons I enjoy horror.

Mike Arnzen said:

It's certainly true that horror is not the only genre for processing feelings of isolation, let alone fear (all art can do this). Where does Ramsland "imply" that it is? I didn't pick that up from the essay, but it's true that she's writing specifically to horror readers, and her points about "existential" suffering are perhaps more likely to be true of horror than they are of other popular genres, many of which are aimed at "pleasurable" forms of escape.

Horror is totally a social act. I love the way you describe this! Especially by bringing up the circus and film. We SCREAM TOGETHER at these things. They "relieve" tension by making it social, as you say; you're raising the concept of horror as a "catharsis," yes?

I wonder whether the private and intimate phenomena of reading challenges your point here. Some horror writers try to tap into that sense of being alone with a disembodied voice, speaking to you through the text, creeping you out... :-)

Your point about getting over "childhood" fears will come up again when we read Freud's theories about "the return of the repressed." I'm not so sure I agree with you; I think horror actually aims to send us right back to our fearful, childish/animalist selves, and reminds us that we are not the civilized, masterful, rational, adults we like to think we are. But it's debatable. :-)

Anyway -- another stimulating discussion. Off to a very good start, Nat!

Thanks for the comments, all.

After thinking about this, I believe Mike's right. I think I inferred Ramsland was saying horror was the only genre because it was the only one she addressed. I wonder what she would say about this.

This is a fun class, and I'm looking forward to more!

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