Let’s talk about horror as a theme in art. For purposes of this discussion, I am going to define “horror” as “art intended to invoke a feeling of fear in the audience.” That’s a fairly broad definition, and one that I wouldn’t use if I were discussing horror as a genre. I want to look at it as a theme that can be present in any work of art, however.
The question I want to discuss is why? Why would an artist seek to invoke fear? Why would an audience want to experience a work that would make them afraid?
Fear, in the real world, is an altogether unpleasant emotion. I have been afraid, and I don’t like it. There are many varieties of fear–fear of pain, fear of loss, fear of privation, fear of humiliation–and I hate all of them.
Fear in fiction, however, is different, and there are a number of reasons why something that is unpleasant in reality can be used as part of a fiction designed for enjoyment.
- To induce a physical sensation. While being afraid is unpleasant, the actual adrenal response can be rather invigorating. Roller coasters and horror movies provide the illusion of danger without the actual risk of harm, which allows the audience to experience the feeling of “being alive” that the fight or flight reflex engenders.
- To provoke sympathy. Fear is universal. No matter what gender, race, social class, nationality, and so on, we all know what it is to be afraid. By presenting an audience with a character in a frightening situation, an artist can create bond of shared experience that gives the audience an entry into that character’s life.
- As a narrative device. A story has to move from point A to point B, and something has to push it along. That something can be a goal to be reached, or negative outcome to be avoided. Fear is the emotion that signals something to be avoided.
- To increase the range of a work. Happy endings are happier because of contrast to what has gone before. What makes something precious is its frailty–in showing that something might be lost, we make the audience appreciate it all the more when it is saved.
So, in closing, let me say that horror–as a artistic tool–is something that is not only for writers who specialize in things that go bump in the night. I think that any writer can find places in her or his work where the best thing to do is to make the reader, if just for a moment, fearful.