I love Halloween and all things creepy and weird. The main character in the book I’m working on now adores horror movies, which raises the question: why?
According to Psychology Today, “When we get scared, we experience a rush of adrenaline and a release of endorphins and dopamine. The biochemical rush can result in a pleasure-filled, opioid-like sense of euphoria.” Out in the wild, that rush probably helps with the fight/flight/freeze response, but in the relatively safe environment of reading a book or watching a movie, the good feelings make us want to read more, watch another, explore that haunted house. But over the years, my relationship to horror has become complicated.
I saw the Amityville Horror on TV when I was about ten and had nightmares for weeks (red eyes under the bed! bleeding walls! the clock switching to 3:15!). Also around that age, my family went to the drive-in (remember those?) to see Mary Poppins, but the screen behind us played a movie in which a witch froze people under a pool. Those drowning faces pounding on the glass still show up in my nightmares.
But did I continue to watch the movie behind us instead of the one I was supposed to see? Yup. There’s something about wanting to know what else is out there, what secrets are being kept by the grownups, what weird stories feed into and relieve fears of the unknown.
As I got older, I read my mom’s copies of Sybil and Carrie, my friends’ V.C. Andrews books, and Edgar Allen Poe at school. I devoured anything by Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Anne Rice. On the big screen, I watched A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Friday the 13th. I saw Creepshow, C.H.U.D., Basketcase, and The Hitcher on cable or VHS. Saturday afternoons or late at night, I got into classic horror: anything with Vincent Price, under the Hammer label, or with the Addams family, I was there.
A lot of vintage and ’80s horror had either a campiness or a spooky atmosphere to evoke a reaction. There was room for auteurs like Tobe Hooper as well as goofs like Sam Raimi. Exploration of the genre itself seemed a big part: What is scary? How can we evoke fear given certain literary or cinematic limits? Are there emotions we want to raise in addition to thrills and chills?
But in the ’90s, I feel like the genre shifted toward torture porn and sadism, including a fascination with serial killers famous for crimes against female bodies. I was accustomed to the long-standing gender component in horror, but instead of being pleasantly scared, I was disgusted. That feeling intensified after my kids were born. Other moms have talked about horror losing its appeal, too; feeling more vulnerable than ever, tasked with the tremendous burden of keeping our little ones safe, we needed no additional fears added to the miles-long list.
Yet the macabre, the strange, the peculiar never left me (or maybe I never left it). I’d still watch those Vincent Price movies on TCM and catch up on classics like Angela Carter, Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Moriner. I enjoyed more of an under-the-skin vibe without the need for a lot of splatter. Recent horror movies that explore sociological topics (Get Out; Bodies, Bodies, Bodies; Hereditary) have reinvigorated the genre with intelligence as well as jump scares. And I’m dipping my toes into horror novels like My Heart Is a Chainsaw and Anna Dressed in Blood.
As my kids become less dependent on me and I feel more confident (most of the time!), I am figuring out my limits about what I enjoy and when. I’m partial to quiet horror moreso than visceral; give me a good creepout that makes me think over buckets of gore. New horror books and movies reveal a diversity that feels fresh and exciting. For my own writing, I’m thinking about what I might bring to the genre. What do I want readers to feel after reading my work? Do I want you to be terrified to look under your bed? Or to feel like reality has shifted under your feet? To be continued… bwa ha ha.