Horror as an avenue for catharsis (article)

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I have tip toed around horror as a genre my entire life. Like many things in life, I was morbidly curious, yet rightfully terrified. I was an easily scared child, always seeing things in the dark, an overactive imagination running wild, unable to read about an unsettling thing without thinking about it for days and days afterwards. Yet, I was endlessly curious about horror.

The more it scared me, the more it drew me back. I never did really watch a horror movie for many years. But I read about them, constantly.

I read about the tricks they used to scare people, I read about their exploration of different themes like trauma and grief and depression. I read entire plot synopses, movie reviews, film analyses, painstaking detail by detail, soaking in everything I could without ever having to actually experience a film.

Eventually, I eased my way into TV shows like Supernatural, Hannibal, and then The X-Files. Gore never bothered me — I remember happily eating a McDonalds meal whilst watching Hannibal on my phone — but it was the psychological darkness that did.

The suspense, the intensity, the jump scares, the deep unnerving, dreadful feeling that some horror could plant inside of you, a feeling that may linger for a long time afterwards. To me, it felt all too familiar, and forced me to be much more vulnerable with myself than I was ready to at that point.

Regardless, horror was always there, waiting for me. It wasn’t until Get Out was first released and when my friend dragged me to the theatre that I allowed myself to marvel at the movie genre I had stayed far, far away from for years (and yet stayed attentively on the outskirts of).

Get Out isn’t even that scary of a horror movie, but quite possibly the perfect introduction for me. It took the issues of marginalised people, of prejudice, of discrimination, and placed it in a terrifying, surreal setting that would feel all too familiar and all too real to other marginalised people. And as I was sitting there watching, I felt that the movie understood an aspect of my life better than anyone or anything else at the time.

I became even more fascinated by how horror, when done right, when not simply littered with harmful tropes and cheap jump scares, could transform lives and tackle issues that other genres cannot possibly tackle in such a nuanced way.

After Get Out, I moved to It, and also into another horror medium — graphic novels.

I read Junji Ito’s works, which terrified me so much as a child I had images seared in my mind for years. But this time, I returned to them by my own volition, and found a profound enjoyment of how they turned the most abstract concepts — like curiosity and obsession — into the main villains, and faucets of terror.

I read Gideon Falls by Jeff Lemire (one of my favourite comic artists as well), hungrily devouring all of it (that was published at the time) at the bookstore within the span of two hours. Its slow paced descent into darkness and madness was surreal to experience in the bright light of an Indigo bookstore.

I read Wytches, an incredible comic series full of disturbing, stomach twisting imagery that could easily be analogies to lingering trauma, of depression, of psychological pain.

At the end of one of the Wytches collections, I found a quote by Scott Snyder that perfectly encompassed my tentative love for the genre before even venturing far into it:

“Great horror takes the things we find safety in and turn them menacing. The world turning on you.

That’s the funny thing: even when I’m at my worst, one of the few activities I really like doing is experiencing horror stories. When I’m not well, and I see a horror film or read a horror book dealing with the fears I’m experiencing in my own exaggerated, obsessive ways, it makes me feel less alone with these fears; someone else has them, too.

But for another thing, the book ends, the movie ends, and just by ending, the story suggests that the depression will end. Great when the hero survives and triumphs, but honestly, even in stories where the monster wins, where everyone dies, the story ends and I am released from it. In the end, the truth is, when I’m well or not well, horror helps me explore the things I’m sometimes afraid to look at in real life in piercing and true ways that somehow make me feel better.

That’s the trick of horror for me. I love reading it to feel less alone with my fears. To experience them actively and then be set free. I love writing it to explore them in ways that are probing and difficult for me and well, scary too, but controlled. Not controlled because those fears are less potent, but controlled because I decide how far to go with them, where they lead.”

Perhaps I found in horror a way to explore and to heal from many things in my life that I could not find in other genres.

Mental illness, marginalisation, trauma, abandonment, and more — although media across all boards have tackled all of these, none could quite tackle them in the way that horror can when it’s done well. You can laugh at your depression through comedy, but depression isn’t just laughed out of you. To tackle your demons you have to come face to face with them, and horror does just that.

A lot of horror movies seem exaggerated and grotesque — over the top gore, over the top terror, supernatural, hauntings, sheer unbelievable fear. Yet, in a way, they aren’t entirely fiction — even the ones that are full of ghosts and black magic and made up lore.

We all have skeletons in our closet, and we all have struggles in life that are at their worst, raw, painful, and disturbing. We all have parts of our psyches we are too afraid to come to terms with or explore, that we keep neatly locked in the dark.

Sometimes, the only way to venture into those parts of our psyche so that we can heal from the things we don’t know how to talk about, is to manifest them in terrifying imagery on the screen.

Horror is a controlled fall into the unknown. It’s a very human way to project our worst fears, our most unspoken questions and worries, and express them in a way that everyone can, in some way, connect with.

It’s taking one of the most primal human emotions — fear — and turning it into an avenue for catharsis and release — and often with that, a new kind of understanding. Of yourself, of others, of life as a whole.

Like comedy, horror is nuance, set up, suspense. Good comedy makes a point, like good horror does. Unlike comedy though, you aren’t laughing at the end.

No, the impact of it lingers in a far more subtle way.

Sometimes, it leaves threads in your mind that you won’t have the courage to explore until years later, but they are there guiding your way for the day you do.

Sometimes you have to sit with and accept your demons in order to come to terms with them. And sometimes, you have to sit in a dark movie theatre for two hours having the living daylights scared out of you, and that does the trick too.