Why We Love Scary Stories
It wasn't that long ago that I was sitting on our couch, shrinking into a tighter ball, knees touching my chin, a blanket covered every inch of my body like a suit of armor.
I had just switched on the light after foolishly thinking I should start the movie I was watching in complete darkness; and with a bowl of popcorn in one hand and the other nervously tapping the side of the couch, I shifted over the course of what turned out to be a harrowing two-hour experience.
Now I wish that I could tell you this was me twenty-five years ago watching Jaws for the first time. Instead, this was me a few years ago watching the Andy Muschietti remake of Stephen King’s IT.
Absent the blanket, this was also me sitting in the movie theaters a few days ago having willed myself to go see IT: Chapter 2… alone.
As you can probably guess, I am not the biggest fan of horror movies and am a bit of a wimp when it comes to jump scares and our willingness to explore the mind and motivations of evil men, monsters, and serial killers.
I have never enjoyed gratuitous violence or excessive and often unnecessary amounts of blood and gore. Some people do. Good for them? I’m not quite sure about that one.
That being said, scares, thrills, and mysteries have both terrified and captivated me, and I’m not talking about slasher films or the senseless blood bath of most modern horror movies. I’m talking about the kind of stories that force us to examine our worst fears, stories that keep us guessing by refusing to show us what’s hidden in the fog, stories that allow our imaginations to assume the worst, and stories that surprise us, shock us, and make us afraid to sleep with the light off, walk down to the basement alone, or go back into the water.
Movies like Jaws, Alien, Jurassic Park, Predator, The Terminator and even The Mummy and Raiders of the Lost Ark terrified me as a kid, and yet, I loved them all the same. Maybe it’s because they highlighted a fear that I felt challenged to overcome. Maybe it’s because they asked the right questions, questions I had about the world and the darker mysteries of life. Sometimes they answered my questions. Sometimes they didn’t. But in every instance, the writer knew how to pull me in, earn my trust, take me for a ride, and leave me feeling satisfied at the end of a truly emotional rollercoaster.
It takes an enormous amount of skill to write a story or scene that terrifies and satisfies people at the same time. So many of the previously mentioned movies were able to pull this off, and I’ve studied them ever since.
But horror as a genre doesn’t have a monopoly on fear, suspense, or mystery. There is much overlap between genres, as there should be. Few stories ever fall into one category or genre.
Jaws can be a horror movie before it shifts into a swashbuckling ocean adventure. From monster movie to Moby Dick.
Jurassic Park and The Terminator are science fiction gems but also the stuff of nightmares.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is both a supernatural thriller and action/adventure.
Alfred Hitchcock taught us the difference between jump scare and suspended tension, but did so through suspense, horror, and psychological thrillers.
So whether it’s a story with a chainsaw wielding maniac (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) or child-eating clown (IT); a supernatural thriller (The Exorcist), paranormal thriller (The Conjuring), psychological thriller (The Silence of the Lambs), or suspense thriller (Rear Window); a monster movie on land (A Quiet Place), sea (Jaws), or space (Alien); a science experiment gone wrong (Frankenstein, Jurassic Park), a natural disaster (Deep Impact, Volcano, Titanic), a zombie apocalypse (World War Z), or mashup of all of the above, stories deal with human emotions, and there are few emotions as powerful and primal as fear.
Stories often play with our fear and introduce scenarios most would run or cower from in real life. However, in the context of story, many people are fascinated with fear and will often pay good money to let someone scare them half to death.
What is it about ghost stories and scary movies that captivate us? Why does fear intrigue us and keep us in our seats or scare them out of it? Why do so many people hate being scared yet love it at the same time?
Having just seen IT: Chapter 2, and with Halloween swooping in like a murder of crows, there is no better time to try and tackle this question than now.
Creatively, Halloween is an artist’s dream.
From monster makeup to scary costumes, elaborate prosthetics and creepy castles, scary stories play in a world of shadows and often deal in the horrifying, horrible, and the macabre. They give the artist an opportunity to explore what’s beyond the curtain, imagine the monster under the bed, and travel into the unknown to confront our deepest, darkest fears.
Apart from the obvious adrenaline rush that comes from being jolted or thrilled (like a drop from a roller coaster), a scary story or frightening scene in a book or movie allows us to encounter fear vicariously through the perils of a fictional character. As Lisa Cron explains in Wired for Story, “the brain uses stories to simulate how we might navigate difficult situations in the future.”
Our world is filled with unspeakable evil. The spiritual realm is dark and terrifying.
From the youngest age, we learn to identify our fears and develop an internal system to manage them, whether it’s running, hiding, or confronting them head on.
Fear, like desire, is a primary motivator, and if human beings have core values and positive motivations, it makes sense that they would also have core fears or negative motivators.
Scary stories force characters to confront those fears, and in doing so, allow us to do the same.
Watching or reading a story may not be the same as experiencing it ourselves, however, the brain doesn’t always know the difference right away.
In watching a horror movie or reading a ghost story, we will often experience similar emotions to the characters we see on screen or read about in a book. But even while we’re trembling in our seats or jumping out of them, we know we’re not the ones running from an evil clown or swimming from a hungry great white shark. We know we’re safe and can process those fears in a safe, controlled environment.
If the book gets too scary or disturbing, we can put it down. If the movie creeps us out or frightens beyond what we feel can manage, we can close our eyes or look away. We can’t do this in real life, and even if we could, it probably won’t change our circumstances.
With story, the emotional centers of the brain trigger the same fight-or-flight response felt by the characters in peril, while the cognitive parts of the brain step in to remind us that actually we’re okay.
Of course, there is such a thing as sensory overload, and I would never recommend a horror movie binge. Horror movies, scary stories, and haunted houses, however, can become a gratifying means for people to face their fears without experiencing the same perilous consequences of real life.
Personally, I hate snakes and am equally as uncomfortable with heights. I squirm every time I see Indiana Jones descend into the Well of Souls and shift in my chair watching Tom Cruise scale the outside of the Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol. In each scene, however, I am mesmerized by characters facing and conquering fears that I have not. I can even enjoy the experience because I know that I am safe on the ground with the nearest snake in a cage, miles away (don’t tell me otherwise. Please).
An upside-down rollercoaster would be a horror-coaster without safety restraints. Once we know there’s a lap bar or seat belt in place, what was once horrible, becomes a ride, one we can’t wait to get on. Story is the lap bar to the fears and mysteries of life.
Naturally, for some, that’s still too much, and they are justified in choosing to skip the experience altogether. Scary stories aren’t for everyone, but for some, they will provide a rewarding experience and thrilling emotional rollercoaster that ends in triumph. And if a character’s ability to manage a fictional fear gives someone the courage to manage a real one, I’m all for it.
Scary stories force characters, good, innocent, and even morally grey, to face their demons (literal and figurative), conquer their fears, and stand up to evil.
Sometimes heroes lose. This is both real and terrifying. I screamed every time those stupid temple guards emerged to snatch the contestants on Nickelodeon’s Legends of the Hidden Temple.
A journey free of peril is a safe passage through the mountains. Story, however, is born out of conflict. The threat of danger produces a fear of failure. Scary stories intensify that fear by making the danger bigger and more real. The writer’s job is to push their characters as close to the jaws of defeat and edge of failure as possible.
Like the character, the closer we get to the mouth of the great white shark, the more we anxious we become and the more we root for the hero to succeed. And when they win, we cheer because their victory feels like our own. We’ve gone on this journey with them, experienced the same fears, and pushed through to the end.
So if you’re into scary movies and brave enough to look fear in the glowing yellow eye and push through to the end, return to Derry with the Loser’s Club, where you will probably appreciate IT: Chapter 2 and enjoy a really smart (although sometimes confusing) thriller from one of the best writers on the planet.
Stephen King never shies away from putting his heroes in danger, as their worst fears manifest through the machinations of Pennywise. The greater the peril, the greater the fight, and if the Loser’s Club teaches us anything, it’s that the path to overcoming fear is facing it.
And when the good guys win, we win. That alone is worth the price of admission.