Why We Need Scary Stories

I love Halloween. I love seeing the world covered in skulls, vampires, bats and zombies. I love the excuse to watch scary movie after scary movie. I love the way that, once out of the year, the world is joining me in contemplation of the grotesque and horrifying.

I have some issues with anxiety. Even when nothing is wrong, my brain likes to pump my head full of scary juices. In fact, it’s worst when nothing is wrong. An actual crisis, for me, is like a vacation. All the unnecessary panic feels like rehearsal, and I can finally put all the adrenaline and hyper-awareness to good use. Perhaps that’s why, so often, my thoughts turn towards disturbing topics or terrifying stories. The emotions are going to be there anyway. It’s nice to give them some appropriate subject matter, to keep them company.

Even for people who aren’t like me, I think there’s benefit to scary stories. That isn’t to say that everyone needs to go watch 28 Days Later or read Lovecraft if that’s not their thing. I’m not trying to police anyone’s genre preferences, or cajole anyone to try horror if they are uncomfortable with it. The benefit I’m talking about is broader, more social.

Here are a few premises for you.

Premise one; the world is in many ways a terrifying place. We all face innumerable challenges, unforeseen tragedies, losses of control and, eventually, death. And that’s just everyday life for the privileged. Once you accept that, you have to take into account certain other facts, like that Kim Jong-un exists.

Premise two; we don’t like thinking about awful things like that. Looking at these issues makes us uncomfortable.

Premise three; we can’t deal with any problem without taking an honest look at it. Attempting to handle a situation without real understanding of it often results in making it worse.

Premise four; stories have the power to teach us about situations by making us live them vicariously. They can be like flight simulations for real life, sometimes in straightforward and obvious ways, other times in subtle and symbolic ways. How a story handles uncomfortable subject matter can teach me how to handle similar feelings in my life.

Conclusion; stories that scare have the power to teach all of us to deal with unpleasant ideas that are still an essential part of life.

Once again, I don’t mean that all of you have to go watch a movie you swore you would never watch because the idea was too scary or icky for you. For one thing, I think these lessons and ideas can be introduced through stories, and then trickle through a whole society by cultural osmosis. I’m not a big fan of romance stories. I’m still familiar with many romantic tropes and their corresponding ideas about love, the good and the bad.

For another, just because scary stories deal with those essential ideas, that doesn’t mean every one handles them well. I am bothered by how many horror films, particularly the gory ones, handle their subject matter by making the victims very flat and eroticizing the violence. I don’t object to eroticism, and I don’t object to gore, and I don’t… well, no, I do object to making the victims flat on the grounds it’s poor writing, especially when they are supposed to be protagonists. But what bothers me most about that combination is that it does position the reader to deal with violence by identifying with the villain. I’m all for understanding, sympathizing with or even empathizing with a villain. Identification with the villain, on the other hand, is uncomfortably close to identification with the oppressor. Humans, uncomfortable witnessing someone suffer, sometimes shut off their ability to sympathize with the ones suffering and instead fixing on the one causing the suffering, who seems interesting and powerful in comparison. In the short term this feels better; in the long run it is the reason former victims are sometimes future abusers. All of which was a long of saying that although I think scary stories can teach us how to deal with fear, not all of them are great teachers.

I do, however, think that every genre, from romance to sci-fi to literary fiction, has examples of stories that handle their subject matter poorly. There is still plenty of fiction in the horror genre that handles awful subject matter in a way that is insightful and artistic, and for the rest of this month I’ll be writing about some of my personal favorites.

Hope you enjoy, and thanks, as always, for reading. Happy Halloween!

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3 thoughts on “Why We Need Scary Stories

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