With the critical and box office success of Get Out, A Quiet Place, and Hereditary, as well as the ongoing success of shows such as The Walking Dead and its offshoots, horror has been making its way from the shadows into the mainstream gaze. The Purge franchise — known for its brutal films and social commentary — even has a 10-part miniseries made for network television on USA Network. Horror narratives are having a pop-culture moment for sure. But why? Why are more and more people drawn to such dark visions and on-screen violence? Why do those of us lifelong fans of horror stories keep coming back for more? Is there a “pleasure” in horror?
For me, certain kinds of horror movies serve a therapeutic function to help me deal with trauma. From the safety of my home or home library, I watch these movies and descend into someone else’s worst day. Through their journey, I go on my own all the while knowing I am safe and protected. The films that are most effective for my self-therapy tend to be trauma-of-the-home films. These stories feature someone who needs to return to the scene of a childhood trauma or loss, and how they cope with that dark history. Favorites like Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, Flowers in the Attic, and the 1990 IT miniseries have been some of my biggest collaborators on this road to healing.
Because I had a nomadic upbringing around the world, it’s not possible to return to any of my original sites of trauma. These trauma-of-the-home narratives give me an opportunity to join others as they return to houses and places haunted in different ways, and confront my own demons along with them. I’m also a rare female fan of the rape-revenge genre. The more feminist installments of these films like Revenge and M.F.A. have helped me process and move beyond terrible events. Horror films have been indispensable for maintaining my mental health.
Writer and professor Kate Durbin also uses certain kinds of horror movies in this unusual way to help confront and heal past trauma from the safety of her own home. For Durbin as well, the “pleasure” in watching horror movies is in direct correlation to how it helps confront and heal past trauma.
“I find stories of hauntings and possession films to be up there at the top for me. Trauma possesses and haunts us; we may try and escape it but it never fully goes away. It leaves traces in us and in the environment,” Durbin says. “I like films like The VVitch and Jennifer’s Body, films that deal with the trauma of being in a woman’s body in a misogynistic world. I like that the women in these films turn into monstrous demons/witches both as a result of their trauma and in defiance of it.”
Durbin first discovered this strange healing power of horror when she began developing college courses on the genre 10 years ago. She tells me, “I realized I found horror therapeutic sometime in the early years of teaching it. I feel horror is a safe space in which to process trauma (at least for me, I know a lot of people find it the opposite). And I’m talking about collective, cultural trauma as well as my own personal trauma.”
For Graveyard Shift Sisters founder and lifelong horror fan Ashlee Blackwell, one of the pleasures gleaned from horror involves centering the faces and voices of Black and other POC. Both on and offscreen, these faces are often hideously marginalized in horror movies and the broader horror production industry. In particular, Black women in horror tend to get the brunt of the worst treatment and focusing on their experiences suddenly becomes an act of social and political subversion.
In an interview with Remedial Horror Blackwell writes, “I spent my entire life feeling like the only Black woman who had a deep interest in horror, and that only doubled my frustration because I didn’t want to believe such an irrational musing.” In fact, it was Blackwell’s series on Black Girl Horror Nerds in October 2014 right here on BGN that helped lead to Graveyard Shift Sisters.
Beyond this important de-marginalizing aspect of her work, Blackwell’s enjoyment of the genre is also deeply personal. The worlds created by horror storytellers as well as relatable characters to empathize with — people who remind you of friends or those you love in terrible situations — draws her back into the genre again and again. Blackwell tells me, “Regular, complex people in these extreme circumstances who you mourn for and cheer on to survive is an important element of the human condition. That instinct to survive is probably our most primal, and the best filmmakers have the unique ability to make us believe in the supernatural, dystopia, etc. and pull us in with a reflection of ourselves.”
For Dread Media founder Desmond Reddick, part of the pleasure of horror is the fan community. It builds around the genre as well as being able to promote and discuss indie creators and their projects in the industry. On an individual level, Reddick also sees horror films’ endings as giving a virtual middle-finger to happy Hollywood finishes. Doing so is like taking pleasure in the dismantling of the “all’s well that ends well” notion, which is rarely true in real life.
Reddick says, “It’s also inspiring to see someone put into harrowing circumstances and coming out the other end stronger. And there’s something profoundly comforting in an unhappy ending as well. The pure gall to do it says, ‘F*ck Hollywood’”
Reddick also sees lifelong horror fans as a special breed of pop culture consumers. He tells me, “Monster Kids are different, I think. We look at the world in a different way. We can see something beautiful in a film or book that ends horribly and know that life is often exactly that.” I agree that there is great comfort and pleasure in being able to examine a situation in a movie and know that it would play out similarly in real life. That can be the scariest thing about horror. And also the most meaningful, and pleasurable part.
When it comes to theories of horror, Durbin’s and my method of horror movies as self-therapy corresponds with Julia Kristeva’s notion of “the abject.” This involves the often-painful and uncomfortable exploration of the physical, social, cultural, and psychosocial spaces where a rupture has occurred. We find solace in those spaces as we simultaneously try to repair them. Durbin’s process also involves Barbara Creed’s notion of the monstrous feminine and reclaiming a female body abused by patriarchal forces.
In many ways, Blackwell and Reddick’s enjoyment of horror relies on Laura Mulvey’s notion of the gaze — and its power — in horror films in particular. Blackwell has shifted what is the traditional white male gaze in horror movies to that of Black women, and this opens up an entirely new framework through which to enjoy and analyze horror stories. Reddick and his community appreciate horror as a kind of collective, examining horror movies from a group gaze as well as a personal one.
In these contexts, the “pleasure” in horror is not necessarily an enjoyment of being frightened or scared, but rather a chance for personal and communal development through specific types of narratives. Horror, then, becomes more than just pleasurable entertainment even through its discomforts: Horror becomes a place of power, both personal and communal.
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Sezin Koehler is a multiracial Sri Lankan American, uncertified Scream Queen, and Frida Kahlo devotee who writes about foreign films, horror, social justice, and representation for Black Girl Nerds. You can also find her on Twitter ranting about politics (@SezinKoehler), or Instagramming her newest art creations and tattoos (@zuzukoehler).