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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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Do Horror Films and Fiction Do Us Any Good? -- A Defense for the Dark Side of the Library

A Brief, Humanist Apologia for the Horror Genre...

Sometimes those things which seem least likely to attract affection and passion are those which harbor it the most; sometimes the ugliest and most inhumane experiences in our lives are those which arrest our attention and possess our imaginations. Why is it that some bookshelves are thick with Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott, or Hemingway and Fitzgerald, or Stephanie Myers and Nicholas Sparks, but others host M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, and Bram Stoker with the same degree of affection and tenderness? In this post, we will look at horror -- why does it merit our attention? Or does it? Is it humanizing or dehumanizing? Important or shallow? Let's think about it....


It may seem strange, in a world with so much natural horror, to seek to explore and even celebrate horror that extends even further beyond human control. It may seem misanthropic, pessimistic, or even sadistic to find pleasure in a tradition that is energized by human frailty and terror. What is it that compels so many people to indulge stories of horror and the macabre? Can anything good come from a tradition that focuses so much on the negative elements of our already troubled life - what Mary Shelley called "meddl[ing] in the dark side of human nature"? And what does this press expect to achieve by proliferating fictional terrors on a terrified world? We would like to address those questions sincerely.

Why do People Even Enjoy Consuming Horror Stories?

Horror Engages Our Passion and Our Humanity.

Although you may be passionate about horror, this is not the passion that I'm referring to. When we read horror, we become passionate about the plot, the characters, the solution. Will the ending be grim or hopeful? Will we learn what caused the horror or will it be a chaotic riddle? Our minds are invigorated by perilous situations -- fear stands alongside love, hate, anguish, and envy as a prominent human emotion -- and through that same invigoration we feel something uniquely human : a surprising sense of comfort arising through the fear -- the validation of our humanity.

Horror Provides Us With Unfamiliar Puzzles.

While most fiction faces its readers with a conundrum (Elizabeth regrets having been so harsh with Mr. Darcy; Tom and Becky are lost in the Cave with Injun Joe), horror -- like fantasy -- presents unique problems that transcend natural law. How can Dracula, an undead sorcerer, be stopped? How can Frankenstein possibly distance himself from his vengeful Creature? What is to become of humanity if Cthulhu awakens in R'lyeh? These problems are just as engaging as detective fiction, but include the added element of unknown suspense : the solutions are extreme because the conflicts are extreme, and the puzzle of the conclusion -- like any game of chess, Angry Birds, or poker -- engages our human yearning to discover resolution.

Horror Excites Our Brain Chemistry.

Literally. Reading suspenseful fiction -- like watching a suspenseful movie -- increases heart-rate which increases the flow of oxygen to the organs and tissues, resulting in all of those feelings and corresponding expressions (spine-tingling, bone-chilling, blood-curdling, hair-raising, heart-pounding, white-knuckled). These experiences also release a mild (but invigorating) cocktail of chemicals throughout the brain : dopamine, adrenaline, serotonin and other neurotransmitters flash across our grey matter as the increased oxygen from our pounding heart floods the brain with oxygen. It may not be a workout, but it is pleasant to experience and potentially an outlet of stress, anxiety, anger, and depression.

Horror Makes Our Common Existential Anxieties Relatable.

We fear. We fear loneliness; we fear failure; we fear disappointment; we fear alienation; we fear rejection; we fear neglect; we fear loss. Fear dominates a wide range of universal human thoughts and concerns, yet much of our film, art and literature is devoted to avoiding those topics. They are feel-good products which are very useful when the fear becomes so intense that we want to unplug to Anchorman, Harlequin romance paperbacks, or the quaint stylings of Norman Rockwell. These creations have their place to be certain. But horror thrusts those fears forward -- it drags them kicking and screaming from the dark caverns of the mind into the light of the printed word. It is just as reassuring as it is unsettling to feel the lonely rejection of Ichabod, the helpless terror of the victims of "The Dunwich Horror', and the spirit-crushing guilt of Frankenstein, because it is cathartic. It is an exorcism, a ritual of confrontation. And even if the characters do not survive, we are certain that we have, and that our burdens are not solitary incidents : they are universal to humanity.

So to sum it up in a concise manner...

Horror is not a pleasant philosophy to meditate on -- the works of Poe, Lovecraft, Blackwood, and James are more likely to keep us awake and vulnerable than send us to bed cozy and content. But perhaps that's okay. Perhaps that's not bad. Perhaps that's just another side of the triacontahedron of the human soul -- a part of our spiritual and intellectual essence that deserves and may even require exploration and acceptance. Carl Jung argued that most psychological neuroses are caused by a failure to acknowledge, incorporate, and accept the darker parts of our consciousness -- that by pretending the Shadow part of our ego didn't exist, or by squelching it with repression, or by punishing it with self hate, we would develop intense complexes, depression, or anxiety. I know that in my own life, when I have tried to wrestle with or dominate the parts of my personality that weren't as socially acceptable, I felt these same emotions -- a sense of deep pain and in-authenticity. But when I acknowledged them and entered into an accepting dialogue with them, my state of mind cleared.

I believe that this is what horror does for us. Henry James wrote about this psychological struggle in "The Jolly Corner," Stevenson in "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde," "The Merry Men," and "Markheim," Poe in "William Wilson," "Metzengerstein," and "The Tell-Tale Heart," and Lovecraft in "Charles Dexter Ward." Horror essentially shines light on and embraces that attic-dwelling, night-fearing lizard Self that we have tried to lock up for centuries, and it doesn't justify those violent, selfish, and anti-social urges or encourage them or stimulate them, but it does acknowledge that they are part of being human, and it opens up a door to our psyches that we would do well not to keep shut, for who knows what monsters might grow in there unattended?

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