The difference between real and fictional horror
Those who don’t like horror movies often ask, “What’s the appeal? Why do you get off on such horrible things?”
As an aficionado of horror, both good and bad, for more than 30 years, I’ve long believed this question revealed more about the person asking it than anything else. Fictitious horror and real-life horror are completely different things.
Whether it’s someone tortured to death by a serial killer or a regular person watching a loved one die from a terminal disease, the end result is the same: emptiness. The serial killer’s thrill fades and there is only a body to dispose of; the regular person is left with nothing but grief and perhaps a guilty sense of relief that they no longer have to watch their loved one suffer and waste away.
Fictitious horror, especially the movie kind, provides the opposite. As many before me have noted, it is the equivalent of riding a roller coaster at a fun park – it offers the illusion that something terrible is happening, but in the end it stops and when reality asserts itself again it looks better than it did going in. A good horror movie offers a form of catharsis and helps us appreciate our everyday existence.
I’ve always got a rush out of horror movies. Even as a child, when I could barely stand to watch the most frightening scenes, there was a partition in my mind separating reality and fantasy. Some people don’t seem to have that partition, and they are the ones who tend to ask that question in the first paragraph.
Now, does the foregoing sound a touch complacent, even condescending? I wouldn’t have thought so – until I started watching season five of The Walking Dead.
In its third season, this magnificent TV show about the zombie apocalypse introduced a newborn baby called Judith. There was some drama as she came into the world, but then the associated problems one might have while caring for an infant in a dystopia full of mindless cannibals faded into the background. I was so disappointed with this* that I had a go at addressing it in a story of my own, ‘Teething Problems’, which will appear in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine later this year.
The debut episode of season five, however, more than made up for any previous deficiencies.
A quick but necessary aside: in Danse Macabre, Stephen King talks about “psychic pressure points”. The horror writer (or filmmaker’s) job, he says, is to get through the reader’s mental defences and poke these pressure points, thereby evoking terror or horror. My defences, however, had always been nigh on impregnable, so while my heart rate might increase at a particularly terrifying or gory scene, horror never discomfited me.
Little did I know that becoming a father (and nearly two years bonding with my daughter) had put an enormous chink in my mental armour.
In that episode of The Walking Dead, baby Judith is put in serious peril. My heart rate rose, the adrenaline flowed… but I wasn’t enjoying myself. For the first time in my life, I wanted to stop watching, because the empathy was just too strong. What if that was my baby? How could he threaten such an innocent creature?
For those brief couple of minutes, I could sympathise with those on whom I had looked with such disdain for so long.
But I got through that scene and – spoiler alert** – so did Judith. When the episode finished and I returned to the real world, what I felt was elation and a more intense love for my daughter than ever before. So I wasn’t totally wrong. Fictional horror had, once again, done its job. It had given me a new appreciation for what I had.
True-life horror doesn’t do that. It doesn’t restore us; it leaves us bent and scarred, even if there is ultimately a happy ending. Which is yet another reason why those who try to blame horror movies (etcetera) for society’s ills are some of the greatest fools on earth. Not only are they wrong, they don’t know why they are wrong and are too ignorant to ever find out.
* I was a little disappointed, for much the same reason, with the otherwise brilliant 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake.
** I was very slow to abandon DVDs and join the digital download revolution. But when a MASSIVE spoiler from season five appeared on my Facebook feed, I decided – at least where The Walking Dead was concerned – the time had come to embrace change.
Kris Ashton is an Australian author best known for his works of dark speculative fiction. His new horror novel, Invasion at Bald Eagle, is available now at www.grandmalpress.com/Invasion.php