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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